Meet the Spartans

October 19, 2017 Topic: Society Region: Europe Tags: GreeceSpartaSpartansWarMilitaryHistoryEmpire

Meet the Spartans

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

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.

The story gives us an unusual glimpse into the interior of Spartan life. The degree of the ephors’ alarm is noteworthy; they even alerted a cavalry regiment in the event that the arrest did not go smoothly. The men arrested were roughly dealt with, as the ephors had unrestricted power to deal with malcontents. They could commandeer army detachments in an emergency. Social tensions were clearly simmering beneath the placid surface of Spartan unanimity in opinion and feeling, for which Rahe has immense respect. “Without this chapter,” writes George Cawkwell, “the obscurity surrounding ancient Sparta would be ten times more opaque.” Mentioning it would have put flesh and blood on what are, in many instances, Rahe’s rather abstract musings on the Spartan polity. It would have complicated his picture of a Sparta undisturbed by the social conflicts endemic to the Greek poleis. The story does demonstrate the effects of the intense competitiveness—the love of honor—about which Rahe is quite perceptive. For there to be winners, there also had to be losers who would nurse their grievances. Cinadon might well have been one of those expelled from the syssitia, the common meals central to Spartiate existence, for falling beneath the minimum property qualification. The Equals, that is, were not equal. Inequalities in wealth and status steadily increased, owing to heredity laws, as land holdings became ever more concentrated. Cinadon and the Inferiors whom he hoped to enlist in his little vendetta might have been the victims of this system, in which collectivization of the activities of life rested on the retention of private property, and entry into the seigneurial class was conditional on such property. Such “social” facts pass through the filter of Rahe’s “primacy of politics.”

WHY RAHE, who makes no secret of his social conservatism, should feel any affection whatsoever for a system that relegated the family to a secondary role, that separated boys from the family at a tender age to harden them for military service, and that made pederastic attachments more emotionally satisfying than those of man and wife, is puzzling. A tentative answer may be found in his preoccupation with stasis, or factionalism, which he shares with the ancient sources. The Greek polis was riven by factions, coalescing at times around charismatic personalities, and usually setting rich and poor at each other’s throats. Oligarchs and democrats might hate each other more than they did the city’s foreign enemies. Rahe reminds his readers that stasis was very much on Madison’s mind when he proposed his celebrated remedy in Federalist 10. Madison proposed that instead of trying to cure the causes of faction, one might treat its effects. A multiplicity of factions in a territorially extended republic would prevent any one from gaining the power to oppress the rest. Interest would be stymied by interest. Alas, the slave interest was not to be contained by such essentially mechanical expedients, and Madison’s solution could not avert the Civil War. Rahe wishes to do Madison one better by looking back to Sparta. Here was no reliance on effects; by creating a uniformity of feeling and opinion, on the analogy of Rousseau’s general will, Sparta eradicated the very causes of faction. The band of brothers, so close that they might at times engage in wife-swapping, would at all times share opinions.

Rahe sees not just the fierce Spartan educational routine producing unanimity of thought and feeling, but also the mixed regime as an antidote to stasis. All larger interests are, so to speak, represented. The two kings, descended from the Panhellenic hero Heracles, exuding an aura of divinity, are obviously the monarchical element. In historical times, they functioned primarily as military leaders outside the boundaries of the polis; within, their duties were in the main ceremonial. This is why they played no part in quashing the conspiracy of Cinadon. The Gerousia, a council of twenty-eight experienced Spartiates along with the two kings, formed the aristocratic element. Its members, all over sixty years old, seem to have set policy and the general direction of the polis. Rahe, drawing on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, stresses the moderation of the old in tamping down the revolutionary and reformist impulses of the young (where would Bernie Sanders fit in?). These two instances must still be supplemented by a third, namely the board of five ephors elected annually, in contrast to the life terms of the Elders. Here is the democratic element. The ephors were a later addition to the politeia, introduced as a counterweight to the kings, from whom they extract a monthly oath “to rule,” Xenophon writes, “according to the city’s established laws.” He further notes that “everyone rises from their place for a king, except ephors from their chairs of office.” In exceptional circumstances, they might prosecute and imprison a king.