Meet the Spartans

Men dressed as ancient Greek warriors stand in front of the parliament building during a performance in Athens, Greece, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

There are good reasons for the widespread impression, in antiquity as well as modernity, that Sparta was in fact an oligarchy.

November-December 2017

Otherwise Rahe’s picture is one of Spartiates making music, wrestling, boxing: “They hunted, they dined, they cracked jokes, and they took their repose.” We know of one kind of music they made together—namely, singing the elegies of Tyrtaeus. Tyrtaeus composed patriotic hymns meant to rally Spartan soldiers in the worst moments of the Second Messenian War, in the seventh century BC. The poems look forward not to victory, but to averting the disgrace of defeat: “It is a noble thing for a brave man to die, / Falling in the front ranks, doing battle for the fatherland.” The diction is Homeric, but where the Homeric hero fought for immortal glory in battle and likely death for himself, Tyrtaeus’s Spartans seek above all to avoid disgrace were they to flinch from facing death. Shame becomes the great deterrent to cowardice. Rahe observes, “Tyrtaeus introduced a new, fully political standard for measuring the merit of men. No longer would the Spartans assess a man’s status by anything other than his contribution to the welfare of the pólıs as a whole.”

This is right, but misses something significant: the love of death that the poems seem to betray. The lesson imparted is that to die fighting is the finest meaning one can give his life. Paul Cartledge links this ethos of death with the virtually suicidal resistance of the three hundred Spartiates to the army of Xerxes at Thermopylae. They died heroic deaths, frustrated Xerxes for three days and gained for the Greeks a slight tactical advantage. Jacob Burckhardt’s judgment was that the “tiny band under Leonidas was intentionally sacrificed so that Sparta might gain renown without having to expose its principal force to the possibility of defeat.” The Spartan authorities had promised Leonidas that they would reinforce his exploratory force with the bulk of their army. They never arrived. Leonidas and the three hundred had, at any rate, displayed the conduct that Germans called Kadavergehorsam, or the obedience of corpses.

FOR TYRTAEUS, the Messenians were subhuman, “like asses worn down by heavy burdens, bearing under harsh compulsion for their masters the half of the harvest brought by the land.” Here, the Helot’s job is to farm the land. Later they were to be found going about business in the agora, the civic center of Sparta, as we learn from Xenophon’s account of the conspiracy of Cinadon in his Hellenica. No date is given, but a year earlier, in 399 BC, Agesilaus, who would become the friend and patron of Xenophon, had ascended to the throne after a nasty succession dispute. Though congenitally lame, he had escaped the infanticide usually meted out to deformed offspring. He seemed likely to lose the contest with his rival because of an oracle being circulated to the effect that Spartans should guard against “a lame kingship.” Agesilaus, however, had a powerful backer in Lysander, his former lover, who urged that the oracle be interpreted in a less literal fashion: “The god was not warning us to guard against somebody stumbling and becoming lame but against a person not in the royal line becoming king.” However contrived this reading might seem, it gave Lysander’s partisans the cover they required to vote for Agesilaus. The oracle had, in any case, most likely been manufactured on behalf of his rival’s candidacy.

The uncertainty, hard feelings and confusion engendered by the dispute form the background of Cinadon’s conspiracy. One day an unidentified man appeared before the ephors “with information not only of the existence of a conspiracy but also of the name of the leader . . . a young man called Cinadon, strong, healthy and with plenty of courage, but not one of the homoioi,” the Equals or full citizens who were entitled, indeed obliged, to take their meals in the common messes and who constituted the master class. Cinadon, said the informant, had pointed out to him the enormous disparity in numbers between the scattering of Spartiates in the agora and on the roads compared to their inferiors, at a ratio of a hundred to one. The prospect of helots, déclassé Spartans and Inferiors joining up was certain, “their feelings toward Spartiates being such that they would like nothing better than to eat them alive.” The alarmed ephors consulted with members of the Senate, summoned Cinadon and ordered him on a mission to a country town to convey certain suspects back to them. Among them was “the most beautiful woman of those parts, who seemed likely to corrupt both older and younger Lacedaemonians coming there.” Once there, Cinadon was arrested, forced to divulge the names of fellow conspirators and hauled before the ephors. What, they asked, was he trying to achieve? “To be inferior to none in Sparta,” he responded. “After this,” we are told, “his hands were bound and his neck fixed fast in a collar. Beneath lashes and spear thrusts he and those with him were dragged through the city, and so they got their punishment.” Punishment is an oblique way of saying that they were executed.