Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An Ionian in Sparta - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of this month I discussed how Sparta's culture of "less is more" pervaded Spartan society. But the impact of this philosophy was not the only feature of the Spartan lifestyle that bewildered outsiders. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," an Ionian visitor gets a "shocking" introduction to Sparta.



What impressed Aristagoras most, however, was the behavior of the citizens.  The boys, as he had expected, were shaved, barefoot and scruffy -- but he had never met such well-mannered youth in his whole life! Even the poorest urchins in Miletos were rude and impudent, while the sons of the rich were spoiled and self-centered. Here, all Leonidas had to do was call to any of these boys, and they came and stood at attention before him with their eyes down and their hands at their sides...

The young men...were impressive too. Again, they behaved with marked deference and respect when Leonidas introduced them.... Aristagoras told himself that there had to fat, lazy, weak and ugly Spartans, but they were not in evidence.

What was in evidence everywhere were the women.  Hadn't Homer described Sparta as the 'land of beautiful women'? Evidently he had not been referring to Helen alone. Aristagoras was utterly amazed -- and a little disconcerted -- to discover that women dominated the Spartan agora. In other Greek cities, the agora was not just a place of commerce, but above all the place for men to congregate, exchange news, and discuss everything from politics and court cases to the latest theory of alchemy. In Sparta, in contrast, there were no citizens in evidence at all -- only craftsmen, merchants, farmers selling their good -- and women.

At first Aristagoras was not entirely certain just who these women were. On the one hand they wore old-fashioned peplos, which meant they showed quite a lot of leg when moving rapidly, but there was nothing lewd about them. They generally wore a himation up over their head (though not shrouding their faces), and they appeared more intent on striking a bargain with the salesmen than on attracting attention to themselves. In other words, they were not whores. Because they were shopping and wore neither gold nor silver, they might have been household slaves, he thought, but most wore very expensive fabrics beautifully dyed in rich colors, set off with bold borders, and clasped with heavy bronze, silver or ivory pins. Furthermore, they walked upright and seemed very self-confident. "Who are these women?" Aristagoras asked at last.

"Mostly citizen's wives."

"Your wives have to do the daily shopping?" Aristagoras gasped in shock. He would never have let his wife go down to the agora and haggle with craftsmen and other charlatans. She couldn't add two and two together, anyway. "You own wife comes here?" Aristagoras pressed him.

"Of course." When she was in Sparta, Leonidas added mentally with a sigh.

"Have you no slaves?"

"The helots do the heavy work, but it is usual for a Spartiate wife to make most household purchases."

"So your women have driven the men out," Aristagoras concluded, because obviously, men would not willingly congregate where they would be surrounded by a bunch of gossiping women.

"It is considered bad manners for a young man to loiter around the agora," Leonidas replied.

"Why? What can be bad about meeting with one's fellows and discussing the developments of the world?"

"We can do that in our syssitia -- not here in the open where helots, perioikoi, and strangers may see and hear.  Besides, there is a prohibition against Spartiates having coins and 'engaging in trade,' which some of our more conservative citizens interpret to mean even daily shopping. Our wives are not subject to the same prohibitions, because they have control of the household finances and must be able to both buy and sell goods as needed."

"But -- that is madness! You let women run your finances?"

"For the most part, yes, our domestic finances. They city has an elected treasurer, of course -- a highly respected man of great knowledge in mathematics and accounting."

"Yes, but how can you let your women run your private affairs? Their brains are underdeveloped, and they are not -- no matter how much they try -- capable of understanding higher principles. Why, if I let my wife run my household, we would have noting but sweets and pretty baubles, and we would all starve."

Leonidas shrugged, "We've been letting our wives run our households for the last forty Olympiads, and our prosperity is unimpaired."

The evidence appeared to support Leonidas. Lacedaemon was certainly prosperous, but Aristagoras could not believe women had anything to do with it....

While the mature women were baffling and incomprehensible to Aristagoras, the girls were delectable -- and they appeared to run around everywhere.  He could hardly credit his eyes when he first spotted them watching the boys at drill outside the city, dismissing them as younger boys watching their elders. But at the baths and then the racecourse, there could no longer be any doubt. Nubile and even younger prostitutes were put on display in a most unusual way. Namely, they were allowed to strip completely naked and then take part in sports alongside the young men. Apparently, by the time they got to be sexually mature they were sequestered away for their paying clients, but the young one were evidently put on display like this to encourage youths and men to bid for first rights or the like. It was an intriguing custom, and Aristagoras was about to ask more about it, when one of the girls walked right up to them.

She had just finished bathing, come ashore, dried herself down in full view of everyone, and then pulled on a simple chiton. She was still rubbing dry her bright red hair when she came over to them. "Excuse me," she said shortly to the stranger, and then turned at once to his companion. "Uncle Leo, may I ride Cyclone in the Gymnopaedia?" Then before he could get a word in edgewise, she hastened to assure him. "I know it's my own fault that Shadow isn't up to it anymore, but she's couldn't have won even without the accident. She's sweet, but she's not really fast. Not like Cyclone. If you let me ride her, I'll bring you the laurels! Cyclone is the best mare in all of Lacedaemon! You won't be riding her yourself, will you? I asked Eirana last time I saw her, but she said she didn't ride anymore. Please let me ride her!" 

"I'm not going to make a decision now," Leondias told his neice simply because he was embarrassed by the way she had plunged in, ignoring the stranger. Pointedly he added,"This is your father's guest, Aristagoras of Miletos."

Too late, Gorgo realized that the man with her uncle was someone important. She had been so determined to make her case to Leonidas that she had dismissed the man with him as "some stranger." Now she turned her attention to Aristagoras, frowning slightly, and noticed his gold rings and bracelets, his woven chiton -- and the scandalized look on his face. Embarrassed, she realized her hair was a mess and her chiton was falling off one shoulder. Self-consciously she pulled the chiton back in place and reached up to comb her fingers through her hair. "I'm sorry to have interrupted, sir," she stammered, then turned and darted away.

"Who -- who -- was that -- girl?" Aristagoras stammered in utter confusion. It was one thing for a girl-whore to address a favored customer as "uncle," but to be told he was her father's guest was outrageous. He was here to see a king!

"That was my niece Gorgo. My brother's only child, since his son and heir died in a accident five years ago. He spoils her, I'm afraid." Leonidas paused, laughed, and added. "We all do."

"Your brother's child? A Spartiate's daughter? By a slave girl, then?"

"No, by his wife." Leonidas turned and looked at Aristagoras straight in the eye. "You didn't think these girls were slaves, did you?" Aristagoras' expression was answer enough, and Leonidas continued firmly. "They are all the daughters of citizens. They are dressed simply and barefoot only because they are in the public upbringing." Leonidas was angry because he could tell how shocked Aristagoras was, but he was angry with himself, too. He should have known how the foreigner would react. He should have made a point of telling him about the girls.  And Gorgo didn't make things better by being so bold. But it was too late now. "I think it is time I took you to my brother."

"Your brother?"

"King Cleomenes."

Aristagoras stared at him.





Saturday, March 31, 2018

Nothing in Excess - A Pervasive Spartan Philosophy

It was the Spartan statesman Chilon "the Wise" who coined the laconic phrase “nothing in excess.” Yet the degree to which this philosophy dominated Spartan culture is often overlooked. Today Dr. Schrader looks at this aspect of Spartan society.



Chilon's saying translated either as "nothing in excess" or "everything in moderation" was carved in stone at the sacred pan-Hellenic site of Delphi. It was recognized as wise advice to all Greeks. Yet it was only in his native Sparta that the concept of avoiding excess was internalized and enshrined in daily behavior. Spartan culture proscribed, for example, economy in the use of words, in drinking, in eating, in making love and in dress and decoration.  

The Spartan disdain for excessive drinking was legendary to the point where Spartans were willing to blame the madness of a king (Cleomenes I) on nothing more than drinking his wine "neat" (i.e. unmixed with water). When it comes to food, Xenophon claimed that boys of the agoge received short rations, while grown men in the syssitia were fed a restricted diet. According to Plutarch even sex was inhibited in Sparta, with newlyweds forced to engage in various tricks and deceit in order to come together. By the end of the fifth century BC, the Spartans were infamous for the lack of decoration on their clothes and homes. Meanwhile, their preference for pithy, precise expression rather than verbose eloquence, had given rise to a contemporary cult of “Laconic” expression.  

Most ancient commentators praise Sparta’s culture of “less is more.”  Xenophon claims that the short rations of the agoge helped boys to grow tall, while the syssitia’s rigid regime kept men from growing fat.  Plutarch suggests that Spartan marriage customs increased affection between young couples by restricting their ability to sate passion, apparently on the assumption that too much sex leads to disinterest.  Certainly, Spartan prudery was viewed by philosophers as more admirable than the reverse.  The benefits of teaching children silence were, of course, widely eulogized and Laconic speech particularly praised by Plato and the philosophers.

Modern commentators, in contrast, are more likely to focus on the harshness of Spartan society. Sparta is frequently compared to totalitarian societies in which freedom is sacrificed for conformity and the state is ever-present.  The emphasis is on children torn away from their parents, on young men confined to barracks rather than living with their wives, on adults with no choice of profession, and soldiers expected to die rather than retreat even in hopeless situations.

Yet Chilon’s admonishment applied to excessive cruelty, brutality, rigidity, hatred and violence as much as to excessive luxury, food or sex!  Nothing in excess means exactly that.  Sparta was no Taliban state in which pleasure, music and sport were forbidden. On the contrary, in Sparta music and dance were valued nearly as much as valor on the battlefield.  

Even war itself was not adored, but rather seen as a dangerous passion that-- just  like appetite and lust –- needed to be controlled. This attitude was symbolized by a temple in which Ares was chained. Spartans feared an unleashed God of War as much –- if not more –- than they feared an uninhibited Aphrodite. The cult of Aphrodite, after all, first took root in Lacedaemon, on Kythera, and according to some sources the Spartans sacrificed to Eros on the eve of battle – not to Ares.

Yet arguably the greatest evidence that Spartan society was not grim was the fact that Sparta had a temple to laughter and so a cult of happiness. To my knowledge, no other ancient city-state shared this open and explicit adulation of happiness. To be sure, Sparta also had a temple to fear, and it would be wrong to argue that Spartans “adored” fear.

Rather, temples were built to all supernatural forces which mortals needed to respect. The Spartans knew that fear was powerful and could seize control of even the bravest heart, therefore it was a force to reckoned with and respected, like death itself.  The significance of a temple to laughter is that it shows that Spartans, far from scorning the light side of life, joy and humor, recognized the power of laughter no less than that of fear.  Unlike any other ancient society that I know of, it placed enjoying life on a par with the undeniably dark forces of death and fear. (See also: Loving Life inLacedaemon.)

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


    
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Friday, March 23, 2018

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"...not like we Messenians..." - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I provided a short comparison of Athenian chattel slaves and Spartan helots. In this excerpt, Leonidas' Messenian helot-attendant points out yet other differences between the two slave populations.



Leonidas gladly submitted to Mantiklos’ barbering. The Messenian had become quite good at it. Besides, it was a good opportunity to gather more intelligence. “What else have you seen here?” 

“The slaves live rotten lives,” Mantiklos told him bluntly. 

“Don’t tell me worse than Messenians?” Leonidas opened one eye to observe his squire. 

Mantiklos grimaced. “I hate to admit it, but they do. Can you believe it? Slaves are not allowed to testify at a trial of a citizen unless they have been tortured! So anytime a citizen gets accused of one thing or another—as they are all the time around here—the slaves of the household are tortured either by the prosecution to make them testify against their masters, or by their own masters to make them vindicate him! Everyone in the household is terrified that in these unsettled times that their master will get into some lawsuit, and they will be put on the rack and stretched until they come apart at the joints or hung over a fire until the skin falls off their feet. The former housekeeper was put to the rack a couple of Olympiads ago, and he can hardly walk anymore. It’s the most barbaric custom I’ve ever heard of! At least you Spartans only kill us or what we have done or not done, not for what you accuse each other of doing!” 

Leonidas laughed at this conclusion, but Mantiklos only glowered at him more furiously and continued, “None of them are allowed to marry. They are locked up at night to keep them apart from the women—like animals.” 

“I don’t expect that’s terribly effective,” Leonidas remarked, thinking how easy it was for lovers to meet at other times and locations. 

“But if a slave girl gets pregnant, the child belongs to the master, not the father. Usually, if the master doesn’t want it, he leaves it in the agora for anyone who does, or puts it to death right away. And the young Athenian men are no better about keeping away from the slave girls than the Spartans in Messenia. The young master here has had all the women at one time or another, except his old nurse.” 

“I thought you said his wife lived here.” 

“She does, but that doesn’t stop him from taking his pleasure with the slaves.” 

“She must be a singularly stupid woman. Imagine what Hilaira would do to Alkander if he looked sideways at one of the helots on her kleros!” Leonidas laughed at the thought, because it was unimaginable that Alkander would look at another woman—but if he did, Hilaira would make his life hell! 

Mantiklos, however, only shrugged. “What should the poor girl do? She’s only just turned fifteen, and according to the slaves she hardly dares say a word to anyone, though she’s been here almost two years. I caught a glimpse of her and she is very frail and sickly looking—pale white skin and an enormous belly. In fact, she seemed to be all eyes and belly. I don’t expect she’ll survive childbirth. She’s too little and weak for it.” 

Leonidas stared at Mantiklos.... Mantiklos, however, had moved on to the next subject. “The worst thing about the slaves here is that they are all cut off from their families. They have been bought and sold—sometimes more than once. They don’t know who their fathers or brothers are. They don’t know the stories of their ancestors or the names of their household Gods. They are all just individuals struggling to survive in a strange place. They don’t even all speak the same language. There’s a slave here who came from someplace in the far north and knows only a few broken phrases of Greek, and another who is from Africa and talks to himself all the time in his own barbarian tongue. It drives the others crazy, because he is vicious and they are afraid of him. They say he once carved up a man—first killed him and then carved up his body into little pieces and cooked them in a big pot.” 

“Here in this house?” Leonidas asked in horror, sitting bolt upright. 

“No, before he came here; but they swear it is true.” Leonidas looked skeptical, and Mantiklos let it go. Although he was now finished with Leonidas’ haircut and shave, they were content to continue gossiping, sitting side by side in the only patch of sun available in the courtyard. 

“Because they all come from different places, they are always bickering among themselves. The Greeks think they are much better than the rest, of course, but some of the barbarians are just as proud. That is why, although they all hate the Athenians, they will never be a threat to Athens as we Messenians are to Sparta.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, if you go out into the streets you’ll see. There are many times as many slaves and metoikoi as Athenians, but they are so different from one another that they would never unite against the Athenians. We Messenians, on the other hand—” 

Leonidas knew about Messenia. He wanted to understand more about Athens. “What are metoikoi?” 

Mantiklos scratched his head and thought about it. “They’re free men from somewhere else in the world. Athens seems to attract human rubbish. I was told they have to find a patron and get themselves registered with a community if they want to live here permanently, and they have to pay a special tax. Anyone who lives here without being registered or who fails to pay the taxes is arrested and sold into slavery. The paidagogos here is an old Thespian who moved here to set up a school for boys but somehow fell on hard times and couldn’t pay his taxes, so he was sold into slavery.” 

“The Paidonomos?” Leonidas asked, horrified—thinking of the headmaster of the agoge, one of the most revered and powerful of all Spartiates. 

“No, the paidagogos. I was told all the wealthy men here in Athens have them: slaves that look after their school-aged boys. You know, escort them places, carry their things for them, recite the Iliad to them, and the like.”  

  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Of Slaves and Helots -- A Short Comparison



In 413 BC, according to Thucydides, an estimated 20,000 Athenian slaves ran away to the Spartans, who had established a permanent fortress at Dekeleia.  For these oppressed and exploited individuals, the Spartans were liberators.  Their story, however, is virtually ignored by the usual depictions of Sparta that stress the “exceptionally harsh” lot of Sparta’s helots. 

As I have tried to point out in earlier posts, helots enjoyed significant privileges that chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world did not. First and foremost, they lived in family units, could marry at will and raise their own children.  Almost equally significant, they could retain half their earnings.  Such income could be substantial, as is demonstrated by the fact that no less than 6,000 helots were able to raise the significant sum of five attic minae necessary to purchase their freedom in 369 BC, according to Xenophon.

In contrast, chattel slaves had no family life and their children belonged – literally – not to them but their masters.  As to the fruits of their labor, these accrued exclusively to their masters, and even freed slaves (at least in the case of former prostitutes) had to surrender some of their earnings in perpetuity to their former masters after their manumission. In Athens, furthermore, slaves could be tortured for evidence in trials against their masters, because the Athenians believed a slave’s word was worthless unless obtained under torture – a bizarre and chilling attitude to fellow human beings.

I would like to note, further, that Athens’ economy was no less dependent on slaves than Sparta’s was on helots. Slaves worked Athens silver mines -- under appalling and dehumanizing conditions worse than any horror story told of helots even by Sparta’s worst enemies. Slaves also provided essential agricultural labor and manned the workshops that made Athens famous for its handcrafts. Even the statues on the acropolis, the wonder of all the world to this day, were largely the work of slaves, who earned “wages” only for their master’s pockets and had to make do with whatever scraps he deigned to give them.

Defenders of Athens are apt to point out that Athens’ laws prohibited the execution of slaves and no one but the slave’s own master was allowed to flog a slave.  In contrast, war was declared on Spartan slaves annually and an organization, the kryptea, allegedly existed solely for the purpose of eliminating potentially rebellious helots.  These Spartan customs are indeed harsh, but they should also be viewed in perspective.

First, according to Plutarch, both the annual declaration of war and the creation of the kyrptea post-date the helot revolt of 465 and have no place in the Golden Age of Sparta, the archaic period.  Second, even after the helot revolt and the onset of Spartan decline, we know of only a single incident in which helots were in fact executed without cause.  According to Thucydides, in ca. 425/424, 2,000 helots were led to believe they would be freed, were garlanded and paraded through the city, only to then “disappear.” Everyone presumes they were killed.  

If this really happened as described, it was an unprecedented atrocity. If true, it besmirches the record of Sparta for eternity. It would nonetheless also still be only an isolated incident. Beside this atrocity, I would like to place as exhibit B the slaughter of the entire male population of island city-state of Melos by Athens in 416. Melos was a free city. It’s only “crime” was to remain neutral in the Peloponnesian war. Yet Athens subjugated the city, slaughtered the adult males and made all the women and children chattel slaves. I’d call that an atrocity too – and every bit as bad as the disappearance of 2,000 helots.

There is no doubt about what happened to Melos. We have many sources and know the fate of many individuals that further verify and illuminate the brutality of the event.  But the story of the 2,000 helots has only a single – albeit usually reliable – source: Thucydides.  As Nigel Kennell in his book Spartans: A New History notes, Thucydides’ dating of the incident must be off because at exactly the same time (425/4) Brasidas was recruiting helots to fight with him – something he did successfully.  Why would young men have been willing to volunteer to fight with Brasidas (which they most certainly did), if they had just seen 2,000 of their fellows slaughtered? It is so unreasonable to believe helots would have volunteered if the alleged massacre had just taken place, that Kennel concludes that Thucydides was referring to an incident that had occurred at some vague/unknown time in the past.

That is surely one explanation, since after Brasidas’ helots had proved their worth as soldiers, i.e. after they had proved just how dangerous they could be to the Spartiates, no less than 700 of them were liberated by a vote in the Spartan Assembly. This means that, if Thucydides is correct and the Spartans had once been so afraid of strong, healthy helots that they slaughtered 2,000 of them before they were trained to bear arms, by 421 a majority of Spartan citizens had no qualms about freeing 700 helots, who were not only healthy, but trained and experienced fighting men. Why would they free these 700 hundred after killing 2,000 others? It doesn’t add up, and so the story of the murder of the 2000 has to be questioned.

While it is possible Thucydides was describing an earlier event, it is almost certain that the only evidence he had was hearsay. The modern historian should not exclude the possibility that the entire “atrocity” was either a gross exaggeration or outright propaganda.

And who would have a greater interest in spreading rumors of such an atrocity than Athens itself? An Athens, whose slaves were deserting in droves by 413.  One thing is clear: those 20,000 Athenian slaves, who turned themselves over to Spartan mercy, did not expect to be slaughtered. Either they had not heard the “truth” about how the Spartans “really” treated their helots, or they didn’t believe the stories they were told by their Athenian masters.

Thucydides is silent on what happened to those 20,000 former Athenian slaves, either because he doesn’t know – or it wouldn’t fit into his neat polemic against Spartan brutality.  We know, however, that Sparta’s citizen population had already declined dramatically by the end of the 5th Century BC and yet Sparta kept fighting and winning battles. It did so by relying more and more on non-citizen soldiers, and a fleet manned by non-Spartiates. It is also in this period that the first references to a curious new class of people, the “Neodamodeis,” emerge in literature.  The most common interpretation of this term is that these “New Citizens” were freed helots or the children of Spartiate men by helot women.  There is, however, no reason to assume that some of these new citizens were not freed Athenian slaves as well. If so, then these men surely found freedom in Lacedaemon.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:

    

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Spartiate - Perioikoi Pact - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I speculated about the Perioikoi-Spartiate pact. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer" Leonidas explains about it in different words and on hand of a concrete example.


 "Another thing," Nikostratos went on as they continued their slow, tortured way along the road back to Sparta: "It is not good for you to keep that perioikoi girl, the one picked up for soliciting, on your kleros. People are talking about you."

"People, or my brother Brotus?"

Nikostratos frowned and insisted, "People--including your brother Brotus." He stopped and faced Leonidas. "You're a bachelor, Leonidas; you can't keep a whore on your kleros without people talking about it."

"You mean it would be better if I were married?"

"Yes -- because then your wife would be in charge of your kleros, and since no self-respecting woman would let her husband keep a rival under her roof, people would recognize that, whatever else the girl did, she did not warm your bed."

"I don't see how the temperature of my bed is anyone's business."

"The morality of every Spartan citizen is the business of us all," Nikostratos reminded him.

"The girl was thrown out of her own home for being a victim of Argive brutality, and you want me to throw her out again just because tongues are wagging behind my back? Listen: if you hear anyone say a word against me, tell them to say it to my face!" Leonidas was getting worked up.

"Stop being stubborn, Leo; this doesn't have to be blown out of proportion. This girl isn't your kin. She's perioikoi. You are not in any way responsible for what happened to her."

"Aren't I?" Leonias stopped, making Nikostratos stare at him. "Aren't we all? What happened on Kythera was our fault. We left it undefended, then took over a week to respond. All the while, the Argives were rampaging across the island -- plundering, burning, raping and murdering. There were scores of girls who suffered what Kleta did, only most of them are now dead. Because we failed them."

"We can't be everywhere at once."

"We collect taxes and tolls from the perioikoi, don't we? We demand their absolute loyalty and require them to send their sons with us as auxiliary troops whenever we operate out side our borders, don't we? We even expect them to put down helot unrest if necessary."

Nikostratos was frowning. "What are you driving at, Leo?"

"That we made a pact with the perioikoi, a simple two-part pact: First, they receive the exclusive right to engage in trade and manufacturing in exchange for paying high taxes and tolls. Second, they support us militarily without question in exchange for protection. When we let the Argives sack most of Kythera this past spring, we failed to keep our end of the bargain."

Nikostratos considered the younger man and nodded. "There is truth to that."

"Then you must admit that if it happens too often, we will deservedly lose the loyalty of the perioikoi, and our own strength will diminish accordingly."

"You are probably right," Nikostratos conceded, impressed that Leonidas could be this foresighted, but then he added firmly, "But that has nothing to do with this girl. She has already been rejected by her own family. What happens to her will have no impact on perioikoi loyalty one way or another."

"Maybe not, but I feel personally responsible for what happened to her, and for that reason I owe her all the compensation I am capable of giving."

"What you're doing, Leo, is digging in your heels and refusing to see reason on this out of sheer orneriness!" Nikostratos retorted; then he patted Leonidas on the shoulder to calm his protege before he could reply. "You don't have to dump her on the streets. You own scores of properties -- including, if I remember correctly, a majority share in a flax mill near Kardamyle."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"I've never met the girl, but most perioikoi women are excellent weavers. This girl must have spirit and brains, or she would not have survived -- and escaped the Argives. Give her some capital and let her set herself up in business as a weaver, attached to your mill. That gives her an honest way to earn her living -- and puts her on the other side of Taygetos, too far away for even the most hostile detractor to impute sexual motives on your part."

Leonidas thought about it for a moment, and then admitted, "No wonder you were elected treasurer again and again....."

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Perioikoi: A Closer Look at Sparta's Neglected Middle Class

It is one of the ironies of recorded history that we generally know much more about the tiny, ruling elite in any society than about the masses that actually composed it. Thus we know about the lives and loves of medieval kings, but little about the peasants that represented more than 90% of their subjects. Likewise, Lacedaemonian history is dominated by the tiny class of Spartiates, albeit a great deal has also been written about the allegedly unjustly oppressed helots. The segment of Lacedaemonian society that has received the least scholarly attention is the “middle class” – the perioikoi. 

The lack of modern literature on the perioikoi is undoubtedly a result of the lack of historical and archeological information about this segment of Spartan society. The fact is, we know almost nothing about them -- not their origins, their history, the density of population, their laws or the nature of their relationship with the ruling Spartiates or their relationship to helots.

The lack of archaeological finds has led some historians to hypothesize that they were an essentially rural population, hardly better off than the helots themselves. Yet the very fact that they provided hoplites in at least equal numbers as the Spartiates casts serious doubt on this conclusion. I would also note that the archaeological finds in Sparta itself hardly reflect the might and wealth that we know Sparta enjoyed. For whatever reasons, the existing archaeological evidence from Lacedaemon is an incomplete, indeed inadequate, reflection of the society that inhabited the region in the 7th to 3rd Centuries BC.

John Chadwick in “The Mycenaean World" claims that the Mycenaeans found a native population on the Peloponnese, which they subjugated. When the Dorians invaded, they conquered the remnants of the Mycenaeans. This sequence of events might explain the three class system in Lacedaemon: the helots were the original inhabitants already reduced to serf-like status by the Mycenaeans, and the Mycenaeans became the perioikoi after the Dorian invasion. All three groups were essentially ethnically distinct and status depended on who had conquered whom. The situation appears to have been stable until the Spartans invaded Messenia and subdued another Dorian population. But all this is speculation.

Yet, while we know almost nothing about the perioikoi, we can infer a great deal. We know, for example, that in the later years of the Peloponnesian war, perioikoi hoplites were fully integrated with Spartan units – and that implies comparable levels of training, equipment and above all trust. While the enemies of Sparta (and modern commentators) make much of the hostility of the helots to Spartiate rule, the loyalty of the perioikoi is rarely questioned – or mentioned, despite its significance. 

We also know that Sparta had a fleet but that Spartiates had virtually no opportunity to gain the extremely complex knowledge necessary to build and sail ancient vessels. We know that Spartiates were prohibited from pursuing any profession other than that of arms and civic service, yet Lacedaemon had extensive international trade. We know further that Lacedaemon produced and exported timber, pottery, and bronze works. It had mines and quarries, and, of course, every kind of craft necessary to daily life in the ancient world from carpentry and metal working to tanning and basket-weaving. Who provided the manpower and the know-how for all these various industries, if the Spartiates were prohibited and the helots were working the land?

The logical answer is the perioikoi. Furthermore, by ascribing to the perioikoi these various urban professions generally held by citizens in other Greek cities, we quickly see a way in which the perioikoi could have been both integrated and co-opted into Spartan society despite their undeniable second-class political status. The Perioikoi had no voice in Spartan policy and yet were expected to risk their lives side-by-side with the Spartiates. It hardly seems credible that they would have accepted this situation for long – particularly in the bad years of the Peloponnesian War – if they had not enjoyed other benefits.

The financial benefits of a monopoly on industry and trade throughout the rich territory of Lacedaemon could be such an incentive. The very restrictive nature of Spartan citizenship, which confined Spartiates to the army and civic duties, opened immense opportunities for the perioikoi to enrich themselves. Even if completely excluded from land-holding (which to my knowledge they were not, but which might have been the case when the Spartiate population was expanding in the archaic era), there would still have been ample opportunities to not only earn a living but make a fortune as well. The experience of other societies shows that a manufacturing and trading middle-class can indeed prosper even when politically disenfranchised (see, for example, Medieval France). This, I believe, is the key to perioikoi loyalty and the essential character of the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract.

While Spartiates reserved political power to themselves and evolved a culture that disdained the public display of wealth; the perioikoi traded political enfranchisement for the dual benefits of economic freedom and security. Behind the shields of Sparta’s incomparable army, the perioikoi were free to enrich themselves for generations. Only after Sparta fell into decline and her citizen ranks grew too thin to guarantee the protection of Lacedaemon did the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract begin to unravel. The decline of Spartiate population forced an increasing dependence on perioikoi troops, which put perioikoi at ever greater risk. As long as Sparta was winning wars, that might have been acceptable, but once Sparta was defeated at Leuktra a perpetual disenfranchisement of the periokoi became untenable. Throughout the archaic period, however, the division of labor between Spartiate and perioikoi appears to have worked admirably.


Perioikoi play an important role in both A Peerless Peer and A Heroic King:

 

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