THERMOPYLAE: TURNING-POINT IN WORLD HISTORY?! Part II

The Spartan hoplite is seen here in full battle array. His Corinthian helmet is of brass and decorated with a transverse crest; his shield, with Spartan blazon, is brassfaced, as are the full-length “muscled” greaves. The white linen corslet, worn over a red tunic, replaced the heavy “bell” cuirass and was made from several layers of material glued together. The lower part was cut into strips to facilitate bending down. The corslet found favour because of its lightness but was often reinforced with plates. The red cloak seen in the illustration was the characteristic Spartan uniform. It was discarded in battle. Before the time of Alexander, beards were usually worn in Greece and long hair characterised Spartan adult men. Herodotus describes how the Spartans; awaiting the Persian onslaught at Thermopylae, passed their time in taking exercise and combing their hair. This hoplite is binding a leather handgrip around the shaft of his spear to enable him to obtain a firm purchase when thrusting it overarm over the wall of phalanx shields. Unlike other hoplites, the Spartan trained all his life as a soldier, and was thus a “professional”. His drill and weapons-skill were thus superior to, and more fearsome than, that of other hoplites.

The Spartans yielded to no other Greeks in their passionate, almost fanatical attachment to competition. They even made the very act of survival at birth a matter of public competition, by entrusting elders with the task of supervising the wine-bath tests for neonates. The practice of consigning infants showing any obvious signs of physical deformity or debility to an early death at the foot of a nearby mountain ravine was not as callous or odd as it perhaps seems to us: both Plato and Aristotle advocated such ‘exposure’ of defective newborns in their respective Ideal States. Likewise, adult status for Spartan males could be achieved only by successfully passing the series of largely physical competitive tests that constituted the unique education or group socialization known as the agôgê or ‘upbringing’. Even then, becoming a full adult Spartan citizen in terms of political standing and participation was made to depend on passing a further and final acceptance test – admission by competitive election to a communal dining group, or mess, at the age of twenty.

Those unfortunates who failed any of these educational or citizenship tests were relegated to a limbo of exclusion, of non-belonging, to permanent outsider status. Nor did internal competition for status end at the age of twenty for those who did achieve full citizenship status: far from it. Not for one moment did they cease to compete amongst themselves and against others, both abroad, in war, of course, and no less famously and successfully at the Olympic Games, but also at home – in local equestrian and athletic contests, for instance, or election to high office, or for membership of the elite royal bodyguard. One disappointed Spartan who had failed to be elected to the bodyguard in his twenties was said to have claimed he was delighted to know there were three hundred Spartans better than he; and even so, he went on to achieve high public distinction in later life.

As for the general Greek passion for freedom, it was said by the right-wing Athenian political writer and activist Critias, who wrote about the Spartan way of life in both prose and verse and thereby founded the literary tradition of the Spartan ‘mirage’, that ‘In Lakedaimon are to be found those who are the most enslaved and those who are the most free’. By ‘the most free’ he meant the Spartans themselves, or more precisely the Spartan master class, who were freed by the compulsory labour of their enslaved workforce from the necessity of doing any productive work whatsoever, apart from warfare. By ‘the most enslaved’ he meant of course the Helots. These people, as noted above, were Greeks who, despite their birthright of freedom, were collectively enslaved and treated with unusual severity by the Spartans, as a conquered but permanently threatening and subversive population.

This harsh treatment at first puzzled and later deeply disturbed the more sensitive Greek observers of the Spartan scene. Plato, for example, by no means unfriendly to Sparta in general, remarked: ‘The Helot-system of Sparta is practically the most discussed and controversial subject in Greece.’ This controversy reached a peak in Plato’s adult lifetime. For, in the aftermath of the decisive defeat of Sparta at Leuctra in 371 by the Boeotians led by Thebes, the larger portion of the Helots, the Messenians, finally achieved their longed-for collective freedom and established themselves as free Greek citizens of the restored (as they saw it) free city of Messene. I must add that the Spartans were by no means untypical, let alone unique, among the ancient Greeks in seeing no incompatibility between their own freedom and the unfreedom of a servile class, and indeed in basing the former on the latter.

These two aspects of Spartan culture and society – competitiveness and contested notions of freedom – almost by themselves make our Spartan ancestors worthy of our continued cultural interest and historical study. But they very far from exhaust Sparta’s extreme fascination. Let’s take a look at those more or less well attested Spartan social customs or practices: institutionalized pederasty between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the compulsory framework of the state-managed educational system; athletic sports including wrestling practised officially – and allegedly in the nude – by teenage girls; the public insulting and humiliation of bachelors by married women at an annual religious festival; polyandry (wives having more than one husband each); and wife-sharing without either party’s incurring the social opprobrium or legal guilt of adultery.

One common factor runs through much of this: the unusual (indeed, by Greek and even most pre-modern standards, unique) functions, status and behaviour of one half of the Spartan citizen population, the women. The extant evidence is sufficiently plentiful to have prompted a recent book on them. This is also one of several modern studies prepared to speak of the existence of a certain ‘feminism’ in Sparta. I think, however, that we should take at least some of this highly controversial evidence with a pinch of (presumably Attic?) salt, especially where the ideological or propagandistic intention is blatant. Our written sources are exclusively male, almost entirely non-Spartan and often heavily Athenocentric. But there is enough that is reliable to enable us safely to infer that Sparta really was, in such vital areas as marriage and procreation, seriously different, even alien, from the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse.

And this surely does make Sparta perpetually worth studying, not only by historians, but also by comparative cultural anthropologists and sociologists, among others. Herodotus, the father of (comparative cultural) anthropology as well as of history, declared famously that he agreed with the Theban lyric poet Pindar that ‘custom was king’.

He meant that in his view every human group believes that its own customs are not only relatively better than those of others, but the best possible. Not surprisingly, he took a special interest in Spartan customs, practices and beliefs. Here are just a few related illustrations. All are taken from the seventh book of his Histories, the Thermopylae book, and all of them go to establish the point that the Spartans were not just willing, but culturally predisposed and educated, to die for their ideals: that is, to sacrifice their individual lives for the sake of some greater collective goal, whether local or national.

Shortly before the epic conflict at Thermopylae, as we saw, it was reported to Great King Xerxes by a mounted spy that the Spartans in the pass were combing and styling their very long hair. He simply refused to believe that men who coiffed like women before fighting would make serious opponents in the field. Or rather, in the case of Thermopylae, not just serious opponents but men who would of set purpose put their lives on the line in the certain knowledge that they were going to be killed. That this was indeed what lay behind the Spartans’ decision to send a specially selected taskforce of three hundred under King Leonidas to Thermopylae in 480 is proven not only by the way they fought and died, but also by the fact that the men chosen all had to have a living son, so as to prevent their family lines from dying out – in other words, after their own assured deaths.

That their mission was suicidal self-sacrifice is supported further by another story in Herodotus Book 7, recounted, significantly, not long before he tells the story of Thermopylae. In the run-up to the Persian invasion of 480 the Spartans considered how they might try to persuade Xerxes to abandon it. Being a very pious people, they thought that the invasion was at least in part heaven’s way of punishing them for the sacrilege of having killed, some years earlier, the heralds sent to them by Xerxes’s father Darius – persons whose office invested them with sacrosanctity. So they conceived the idea of making atonement to Xerxes, and of sending two Spartans to be killed by him as restitution and compensation. Call the Spartans naive – certainly, that was how their gesture was reportedly regarded by Xerxes (who simply dismissed the would-be patriotic suicides from his presence with haughty contempt). But the spirit of self-sacrifice for a larger cause, in this case the good of all Greece, not just of Sparta, shines out.

In the event Xerxes did invade Greece and, after stiff Greek resistance, forced the pass of Thermopylae. ‘Go tell the Spartans’, the beginning of Simonides’s famous epigram hymning the heroic Spartan dead in this encounter, has resonated in recent popular culture. As the epigram’s next words, ‘… passerby, / That here, obedient to their laws, we lie’, suggest, the laws of Sparta were unusually rigorous, and rigid. But another emblematic passage of Herodotus Book 7 – a supposed interview between Xerxes and the deposed Spartan ex-King Demaratus – makes clear how this last clause of the epigram was supposed to be read: as illustrating the characteristically Greek civic quality of obedience to the laws, a quality that the Spartans embodied and acted upon to the full.

Demaratus assures Xerxes that the Spartans will stand up to him, because they fear the Law more even than Xerxes’s subjects fear him. More importantly still, the Spartans, unlike them, were able to make a free choice. They established their own laws for themselves by collective agreement, and they chose to obey them. They were not compelled by sheer terror or force to obey the arbitrary and lawless whim of a despot or autocrat. That, certainly, was a biased, ethnocentric judgement by Herodotus. But it also contains an essential truth, both about the ancient Greeks as a whole and not least about the leading Greeks of the Persian War period: the Spartans.

The Spartans and their unique society occupy a central place in the utopian tradition. But Utopia, as the Greek-derived word’s inventor, Thomas More, was well aware, is formally ambiguous. Depending on how the prefix ‘U’ is taken, it can mean either ‘No-place’ (outopia) or ‘Well-place’ (eutopia). The news from the Spartan Nowhere is admittedly not always good. An article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, featuring my earlier Spartans book and TV series, was introduced editorially as follows: ‘They hurled babies into ravines and culled their workforce yearly. Historian Paul Cartledge thinks we could learn a thing or two from those Spartans.’ Nevertheless, I should still like to think, and like my readers to think too, that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be the worst place on earth to find ourselves – minus, of course, the exposure of infants and the exploitation of Helots.

At any rate, the ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae still resonates today: it is the concept that there are some values that are worth dying for, as well as living for. That notion, however, can be a two-edged sword. As applied by certain suicide bombers, for example, it seems to me to be wholly repellent, however justified their cause. Yet when developed in the direction taken by the Spartans and their founder-lawgiver Lycurgus, it can generate ideals of communal co-operation and self-sacrifice that qualify for the honorific label of (e)utopia.

Traditionally, and rightly, Sparta is not commemorated as a hot-house of high culture. But there was, I think, no paradox or irony when William Golding, a future Nobel Laureate for literature, wrote in 1965 after a visit to the Hot Gates:

A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.

It is worth bearing this judgement in mind as one contemplates the Thermopylae memorials on offer in Greece and elsewhere today, both in Sparta and, more poignantly if also more noisily, at Thermopylae itself.

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