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Sparta In Context

Although we know very little about Leonidas during the period of his life described in this second book of the trilogy, we know that he married Gorgo – a woman described even by non-Spartans as particularly clever.  We also know he was later elected to lead a coalition of Greek forces against the Persians in 481.  These two facts tell us significant things about what kind of man Leonidas was, and so provide hints about what was happening in this stage of his life, against the background of his society and historical developments generally.

Turning first to Leonidas’ election to lead the coalition against Persia: this fact has far too often been interpreted as simply a tribute to Sparta’s position as the leading military power of the age.  Such an interpretation ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the same coalition preferred Athenian leadership to that of Leonidas’ successor Pausanias – and Pausanias had just led the coalition to a spectacular victory at Plataea!  Sparta was no less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation in arms was greater.  If simply being Spartan was all that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have either accepted Pausanias or asked Sparta to send another Spartan general to replace him; it did neither.  Just as Pausanias was not elected in 478, Leonidas was elected in 480 – not because he was Spartan, but because of who he was.

With respect to Gorgo, we know that Leonidas married her before he became king.  We also know that at his death Gorgo was still of childbearing age.  But if Leonidas was, as Herodotus claims, born only “shortly” after his brother Dorieus, he would have been roughly sixty years old at Thermopylae.  There are two reasons why I believe this is unlikely.  First, his performance at Thermopylae, in the forefront of one of the most bitterly fought phalanx battles in history, is improbable for a man of sixty.  Hoplite fighting was grueling, even if it lasted only a few hours on a single day.  Second, it would mean that he married a woman young enough to be his daughter, which was not Spartan custom.  Based on these facts, I have hypothesized that Leonidas could not have been much more than forty-five at Thermopylae: forty-five being the age after which Spartan reservists were no longer called up for front-line service.  Likewise, I believe Herodotus intentionally underestimated Gorgo’s age in his depiction of her encounter with Aristagoras in order to discredit Cleomenes, and because girls’ ages were unimportant to other Greeks.  By lowering the age conventionally given to Leonidas by a decade and increasing Gorgo’s by half that, I have made the age difference between them consistent with their relationship as suggested by the evidence, and more compatible with Spartan custom.

Even with this adjustment, Leonidas would almost certainly have been married once before his marriage with Gorgo, because Leonidas would still have reached the age of thirty before Gorgo reached a marriageable age in Sparta.  Bachelors over the age of thirty faced severe sanctions in Sparta – and Leonidas was, if nothing else, a law-abiding Spartan citizen.  I have therefore hypothesized a first marriage and widowhood to make Leonidas free to marry Gorgo when she comes of age.

The key historical events incorporated into this novel are the scene between Gorgo, her father, and Aristagoras, and the Battle of Sepeia between Sparta and Argos.  The fact that Mycenae and Tiryns escaped Argive dominance and were briefly independent members of the Peloponnesian League is another, often overlooked, consequence of the defeat of Argos at Sepeia.  It reinforces Sparta’s deserved reputation for sophisticated diplomacy, which left cities (except, notably, Messenia) their independence. While there is no historical evidence for Leonidas’ playing a role either in the battle or in this diplomatic coup, I think the fact that he was later elected leader of all the Greeks opposed to Persia suggests he had a reputation, for both military competence and fair treatment of allies, that justified such trust.  These events seemed a likely means for him to have earned that trust.

Cleomenes’ campaigns against Athens and the successful Corinthian challenge to Sparta, which resulted in a significant change in the character of the Peloponnesian League, are also historical fact.  The significance of the alteration of League voting rules can hardly be overstated.  Equally important is that members of the League did not owe Sparta tribute.  These are key features that made the Peloponnesian League less oppressive than Athens’ Delian League would later be.

The Ionian revolt, the Athenian support for that uprising, and the defeat of the combined rebel fleet were also historical events.  Although touched on only tangentially in this novel, these are the events that ultimately led to the Persian invasions of 490 and 480.

The main focus of this novel, however, has been character development and descriptions of society, rather than events.  As in A Boy of the Agoge and my other novels set in Sparta, the Spartan society I describe is based on both research and common sense.  I have drawn heavily on Conrad Stibbe and his depiction of archaic Sparta and on Thomas Figueira, who effectively refutes allegations that the Spartan population was already declining in the second half of the sixth century BC.  Until the earthquake of 465, Spartiate population was increasing and causing significant social pressures and problems, such as those described in this novel.

Altogether, the depiction of Sparta in this novel differs from many stereotypes of Sparta not because I am ignorant of the usual allegations of pederasty, brutality, ignorance, humorlessness, and boorishness, but because analysis of the evidence decisively refutes these stereotypes and I consciously wanted to portray a Sparta that is closer to the historical Sparta based on the breadth of information available to us today.  Let me address some of the most glaring misconceptions about Sparta common to many works of fiction and nonfiction alike.

Art and Culture: Even if Spartan sculpture and architecture never attained the heights known in Athens, Sparta was anything but a city without art, culture, or notable architecture.  Sparta had a highly developed pottery industry that was not eclipsed by that of Athens until the fifth century.  Its bronzeworks were coveted and exported throughout the known world, particularly in the sixth century BC.  Its sculptors received commissions in Olympia and Delphi.  Its dance and music were considered so superior that they attracted mass tourism, and artists from other parts of Greece competed for the honor of participating in Spartan musical festivals.  The city itself was different from other Greek cities, but it was not just a collection of villages, nor was it lacking any of the features that characterized Greek cities – agora, theater, fountains, gymnasia, palaestra, temples, shrines, memorials – except walls.  The Roman commentator Pausanias, who claims to have recorded only the “most significant sites,” describes 100 shrines, 46 temples, and many other war memorials, graves, and statues in his description of Sparta in the second century AD.  For a more detailed description of what Sparta was like in the age of Leonidas, see my articles The Land of Leonidas and In Search of Sparta (published in "Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History" ).

Dress and Grooming: Some modern depictions of Spartans show them as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging around their shoulders.  Other novelists have described them as stinking, filthy, and slovenly.  These images contradict the historical record and existing archaeological evidence.  Herodotus makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae.  A statue fragment found in the heart of Sparta and dating from the early fifth century (commonly – or affectionately – referred to as Leonidas) shows a man with a clipped beard and neat hair.  Earlier archaic artwork unanimously shows men with short beards and long, but very neat, “locks” of hair.  Whether these locks were in fact braided or plaited in some way it is not possible to tell from the stylized nature of the evidence.  However, it is physically impossible to keep long hair neat and in orderly strands when engaged in sports and other strenuous activities unless it is carefully confined in some way.  Thus, practical modern experience suggests that Spartan men did braid their hair, something that is consistent with if not definitively proved by the archaeological evidence.  Braiding has the added advantage of being something that can be done quickly and alone if necessary, or done elaborately with the help – as every Spartan would have had – of an attendant.  This would have been a way for men to express individual taste and personality within the rigid limits of Sparta’s code about not displaying wealth, and again consistent with remarks attributed to Lycurgus about long hair making an ugly man uglier and a handsome one handsomer.

As for Spartan women, there is no reason to believe that they, any more than women anywhere in the world in any period of history, were immune to the fundamental vice of vanity.  On the contrary, contemporary plays depicting Spartan women (such as Andromache by Euripides) stress rather the reverse: that Spartan women were luxury-loving and excessively vain.  Aristotle accuses Spartan women of pathological greed and portrays them as completely self-indulgent.  More significantly, jewelry has been found in archaeological finds in Laconia.  The fact that Sparta’s lawgiver Lycurgus is credited with prohibiting the use of gold and silver as currency is not the same thing as prohibiting women from adorning themselves with these metals, much less with other decorative items.  I have opted to show Sparta as a society in transition, where some women still wear jewelry, particularly the queens, but where a faction is becoming radicalized and scorns traditional forms of female adornment.

Illiteracy: Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic maneuverings, or attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their public school if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them.  Clearly Spartans knew their laws very well, they could debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries.  Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by her many contests and festivals for poetry in the form of lyrics.  The abundant inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read!  Likewise, Sparta sent written orders to its commanders, and anecdotal evidence suggests that mothers and sons exchanged letters.

Institutionalized Pederasty: There is absolutely no evidence of pederasty in Spartan society during the age of Leonidas or in the centuries before.  Herodotus tells several tales of Spartan men showing loyalty to and affection for their wives, and of men being sexually attracted to other men’s wives or young maidens, but tells not one tale of Spartan homosexual lovers.  Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge, states explicitly: “… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta, lovers should refrain from molesting boys just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters.”  It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this, and from the most credible source.  To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.
Xenophon goes on to add: “It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this, since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys.”  And this is the crux of the matter.  All of our written sources on Sparta come from those other cities, where pederasty was rampant.  In short, the bulk of the written record on Sparta comes from men who could not imagine a world without pederasty.  But then, neither could they imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful who were not also licentious and lewd.

Modern readers ought to be more open-minded and admit that pederasty is not inherent in society — particularly not in a society where women are well integrated.  My thesis is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta’s ills (from his point of view) on the fact that the women were in control of things, a fact that he in turn attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society.  In this, Aristotle exhibits an astonishing appreciation of psychology, which modern research conclusively supports.  We now know that male victims of child abuse grow up into misogynous men.  The status of women in Athens fits this description perfectly, while the status of women in Sparta completely contradicts – indeed, refutes – the thesis that Spartan men were systematically subjected to sexual abuse by their elders.

Finally, I would like to call on the archaeological evidence.  To date — in sharp contrast to the case of other Greek cities — no Spartan homoerotic artwork has been found. Since the Spartan legacy of artifacts is somewhat less plentiful than that of Athens, Corinth, or other cities, maybe something will still turn up; but until that happens, the evidence is against institutionalized pederasty in the agoge of the archaic and early classical periods – and against widespread homosexuality among adult Spartans as well.

Kryptea: The kryptea was a secret organization within a secretive society, and contemporary observers knew very little about it — meaning that we know even less.  Allegedly it was composed of young Spartans who by night murdered innocent helots deemed dangerous to the Spartan state.  In the late fifth century it was responsible for a couple of credibly recorded incidents in which helots were “disappeared.”  However, the origins of the organization — although attributed by Aristotle to Lycurgus — are unknown, and there is good reason to doubt that it was a fundamental feature of Spartan society throughout Spartan history.  First, the murder of helots without any form of due process would have been disruptive to an economy based on helot labor, and many Spartiate landowners would have been outraged to have their best workers murdered.  Second, it is not plausible that a population terrorized by the constant threat of arbitrary murder would have rendered the good service that Spartan helots did throughout the archaic period, and through Thermopylae itself.

In my earlier novel Are They Singing in Sparta?, I hypothesized that the kryptea was initially an irregular military unit used for conducting guerrilla operations during the Second Messenian War.  I suggested that at that time it killed only helots who were in rebellion against the Spartan state, and none that were peacefully working on estates.  I further suggested that after the conclusion of the Messenian war, the kryptea evolved into a kind of secret police charged with eliminating “traitors” — not on a whim but when ordered by someone in authority, whether ephors, kings, or Gerousia.  It was this concept of the kryptea that I also employed in Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen and in The Olympic Charioteer.

However, Dr. Nic Fields recently noted that there is in fact no evidence that the kryptea existed prior to the helot revolt of 465.  This is a very significant observation, as it suggests that the kryptea may in fact have been created as a response to that revolt.  Such a theory would be completely consistent with the evidence of a stable society in which art and trade flourished throughout the archaic period, followed by a society in crisis and decay following the earthquake and revolt.  The kryptea is an organization that fits well in a society that has become paranoid and xenophobic, but is incomprehensible in a stable, well-functioning society such as archaic Sparta.  Thus, I have removed all reference to the kryptea from this novel.

Marriage Customs: Spartan marriage customs were viewed as peculiar even in ancient times—as was almost everything about Spartan women.  Because all our sources on marriage are foreign, however, everything we are told about the alleged customs is highly suspect.  In fact, almost everything said about Spartan marriage customs is contradicted somewhere else.  For example, Lycurgus allegedly prohibited women from having dowries so that young men would select their brides for their virtues rather than their possessions; but we know for a fact that women inherited property and controlled vast fortunes, and that women (Lysander’s daughters) lost prospective husbands because of inadequate dowries.  It is impossible to legislate against greed.  Another example is Plutarch’s description on one page of how girls and women engaged in sports and danced nude “with the young men looking on,” only to claim a few pages later that Spartan husbands often had children before they saw their wives by daylight—as if the girls who danced, raced, and swam nude in public weren’t the same girls who became their wives.

Certainly, we know absolutely nothing about the reasons why Spartans apparently took their brides by stealth, rather than in a public festival as in most of the ancient world.  Modern speculation about cross-dressing rituals and the need to accustom homosexual men to heterosexual sex are pure speculation and mostly nonsensical. (See note on institutionalized pederasty above.)

It is also important to keep in mind that despite the alleged ritual of a bridegroom coming for his bride by stealth, every reliable source on Sparta makes it clear that Spartan fathers, no less than fathers elsewhere, chose their daughters’ husbands; and in the case of orphaned heiresses, the kings controlled the marriage.  Furthermore, there is every indication that a marriage contract of some kind was made between the families of the bride and groom before the staged abduction.  As far as can be determined today, the contract whether verbal or written, not the consummation, was what made a marriage legally binding.

Oppression of Helots: The status of helots in Sparta was significantly better than that of chattel slaves in the rest of Greece.  Helots could not be bought and sold – chattel slaves could.  Helots retained as much as 50 per cent of the fruits of their labor – chattel slaves, nothing. Helots had functioning family groups – chattel slaves were completely cut off from their families, and often did not know the names or locations of their parents, siblings, or children.  Helots could marry and have children – chattel slaves were usually locked up in separate accommodations to prevent any intercourse between slaves, but could be sexually abused by their masters and their masters’ friends at will.  Any child born to a chattel slave was the master’s property to expose (kill), sell, or retain for personal service.  The better status of helots is underlined by the fact that 20,000 Athenian slaves ran away to join the Spartans in 413 BC, when a Spartan army was close enough to Athens to give them prospects of successfully escaping pursuit by their masters.

The prevalence of chattel slavery in the rest of the Greek world means that in all probability, the perioikoi and certainly travelers to Sparta would have had such slaves.  A slave retained his or her unfree status unless explicitly emancipated; thus, human beings who had been sold as slaves in distant markets would still be slaves in Sparta.  Ambiguous references in ancient sources suggest that Spartiates occasionally acquired these slaves.  Since helot labor was predominantly agricultural, and helots could not be bought or sold outside of Lacedaemon, Spartiates may have purchased specialist labor abroad as needed; and they would, of course, have occasionally acquired slaves through capture or because parents sold their children into slavery – something that is still done in some parts of the world today.

It is also important for readers to distinguish (as ancient historians singularly fail to do) between the helots of Laconia and the helots of Messenia.  The Laconian helots were probably not of Greek origin, and may have been the descendants of the original inhabitants, conquered by the Achaeans as early as 1200 BC.  By the time of the Dorian invasion, they were already in a subordinate status and appear to have harbored no memories of an age of independence.  These helots furthermore appear to have been, on the whole, completely reconciled to their status, and as such were reliable and trusted, albeit second-class, members of Spartan society.  They provided the labor that kept the economy going and provided essential support troops for the army.  The helots of Messenia, in contrast, had been conquered in the seventh or eighth century BC by the Spartans themselves.  They retained a collective memory of being free, and this made them more resentful of their status as helots.  The irony is that when other Greeks conquered other cities – as in Athens’ victory over Melos in 416 – it was common to slaughter the men and then carry off all the women and children as chattel slaves, sending out settlers to take over the conquered land.  The Spartans’ comparatively humane treatment of the Messenians, which enabled them to retain their identity, created a constant threat and earned them a modern reputation for brutality that ignores the alternative: Athens’ method of outright slaughter, rape, pillage, and chattel slavery.

Finally, historical sources that describe the rounding up and killing of rebellious and potentially rebellious helots date from a period later than that of this novel, and they describe isolated incidents – not a continuous pattern, as modern writers too often impute.  They occurred after a devastating earthquake that killed an estimated twenty thousand people – and after a significant revolt by the Messenian helots, who sought to exploit Sparta’s weakness following the earthquake.  The Spartan attitude toward helots after the traumatic effect of the double blow of earthquake and revolt is comparable to the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 upon the American psyche.  Sparta’s attitude toward its subject population turned radically intolerant following the shocks of 465-460 BC.

Xenophobia: Throughout the archaic and into the classical period, Sparta was not a xenophobic society.  It welcomed poets, musicians, and philosophers from around the world, and these not only came to but often spent years in Sparta – as did, for example, the poets Alkman and Tyrtaios and the philosopher Pythagoras.  Lesser-known foreigners came yearly as tourists to see Sparta’s famous festivals, particularly the Gymnopaedia and the Hyacinthia.  Meanwhile, Spartan athletes competed at the pan-Hellenic games in Olympia, Delphi, and Corinth. Sparta maintained permanent representatives in Delphi, and sent envoys more than once to the court of the Persian king.

Furthermore, while Sparta itself was landlocked, Lacedaemon had ports that gave access to the Laconian and Messenian Gulfs and directly to both the Ionian and Aegean Seas.  These ports facilitated trade with the rest of the ancient world, an activity that inherently led to contact and exchange.  Sparta did not depend in the same way that Athens and Corinth did on imported materials (particularly grain), and its citizens did not live from trade. Nevertheless, Spartans were not inherently insular, paranoid, and xenophobic, as too many modern writers suggest.  Spartans did not need to trade or become craftsmen themselves in order to enjoy and benefit from trade and manufacturing, because they could rely on the perioikoi to do the trading and manufacturing for them.  The perioikoi, in turn, benefited significantly from a monopoly on trade and manufacturing in one of the largest and most fertile territories in Greece, which accounts for their loyalty to Sparta until Sparta’s decadence and decline in the fourth century.

However, following the shock of the earthquake and helot revolt of the early fifth century, Sparta was drawn into a bitter war with Athens.  The Peloponnesian War became a further drain on Sparta’s dwindling manpower, and contributed to a “siege mentality” that had already been sparked by the double blow of the earthquake and the helot revolt.  This was reflected in a variety of ways, from increased secrecy and xenophobia to declining production of exportable artifacts.  In short, the long-drawn-out war between Sparta and Athens undermined the foundations of both societies.  The Peloponnesian War turned both Sparta and Athens into brutal imperialist tyrannies, and a shortage of manpower in Sparta led to a sustained crisis that ultimately led to Sparta’s military and moral defeat.  By then, however, Sparta had long since ceased to be the nation Leonidas would have recognized.

For more information on Sparta, visit my website: Sparta Reconsidered,

These notes were first published in Helena P. Schrader's Book Two of the Leonidas Trilogy: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer  
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