The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 3

by Paul Mathers


Even their ruins are Spartan!

I feel that one of the most fascinating portions of this course so far has been the section on Sparta. The professor warns us, “If ancient evidence needs to be handled with caution, the evidence about Sparta needs to come with a warning label.”

Sparta was utterly different from the rest of Ancient Greece and, indeed, the rest of the ancient world. It was apparently not as isolated as we once thought. Their trade network may not have been extensive, but there is evidence of Sparta wear and pottery found in other areas.

Sparta had a sort of “radical equality,” although there seem to have been class distinctions nonetheless. Sparta was in the south. It began as four unwalled villiages, but coalesced and took advantage of their location. They were next to the river Eurotas and between two mountain ranges. They had access to water, they were highly defensible, and they could control access.

In Homer, Sparta is the home of Menelaus and Helen (as in “of Troy.”)

Their archeological evidence is meager and the buildings that we do have are sparse (which is part of why this portion of my notes will read a bit scattershot). There is evidence of social unrest in the late 700s. In about 710 BCE they founded their only colony down in the southern boot of Italy. Their chief poet was Tyrtaeus whose poetry reads like this:

“For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.

Here is courage, mankind’s finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.”

This decidedly non-Hallmark verse is thought to be meant to encourage during the 2nd Messenian War (670-650 BCE. The length may give you some idea over a perceived need for encouragment). We know that the did eventually win. Sparta took over the west, gaining 3,000 square miles of agricultural land and a subject population. These were known as the Helots and became property of the Spartan people. They greatly outnumbered the Spartan people, so the Spartan people needed to figure out a way to subjugate this slave population. And so was born the Spartan culture.

Of course we know that “spartan” has become an adjective for “sparse and austere” and “laconic” (Laconia being the region of Sparta) means “of short, clipped, direct speech.” Sparta is known for its harshness.

Kingship became vestigial in Greece in this period. In Sparta, there was the oddity of a diarchy, which is to say two kings ruling together. They retained the powers of commander-in-chief, commanding executions, and getting preferred seating at banquets. There were other outlets of Spartan rule. The Gerousia were a council of old men (at least 60 years old) who sent forth proposals to the Damos/Apella, a sort assembly who voted on these proposals. There were the Ephors who were 5 elders who maintained discipline in the state. One of their functions was to assess every baby born in Sparta. If the baby showed any sign of weakness or malformation, the Ephors had them killed. The Helots were given dog-skin caps to wear to show their humiliated state. They were forced into agricultural labor. Terrorism from the state kept them in line.

“Agoge” is the system of upbringing into the Spartan way of life. At ages 7 through 13, the children went to school (by the way, it may surprise you to know that Spartan women were quite free, although I don’t think anything aside from that was mentioned about them in in this course). They were taught exercise and dance. At 13, the boys were separated from the girls. The boys were toughened and taught obedience. They were fed on gruel made with pig’s blood in portions barely capable of sustaining life. They would have to steal food in order to survive, but if they were caught they were severely punished. They would, in this state, be brought into a building, the temple of Artemis (their patron goddess, the goddess of hunting and warfare) in fact, with a huge stack of cheese in the middle and men with whips around the perimeter. They would have to make a mad dash to get a bit of cheese and have to endure the whips. There were secret missions assigned to the children called Krypteia in which the elite Spartan youths would sneak into the Helot area and kill the Helots that were viewed as a threat. At 20, Spartan men received Hoplite training. At 30, they applied to admission to the Syssitia, which was an eating club. They were then considered full Spartan citizens.

Judge it as you no doubt will (I sure do!), the system worked. In Plato’s Laws, one of the speakers says to the Spartan,

“…one of the best of them will be the law forbidding any young men to enquire which of them are right or wrong; but with one mouth and one voice they must all agree that the laws are all good, for they came from God; and any one who says the contrary is not to be listened to.”

You can read more about Spartan culture by reading their constitution.

Our midweek lecture began with the poet Archilochus and the first known use of the word tyranny, “I want no pride of tyranny.” In the original sense, a tyrant was simply one who seizes power in a non-constitutional way. In a number of ways, this was a necessary precursor to democracy.

Corinth was centrally located and controlled a key North-South route in which the land separated two major bays:

ImageThere is a canal now, but they Ancients built a sort of stone land-path. Sailors would stop to unload there and reload on the other side rather than sail around, which made Corinth into a major and prosperous port. Corinth was ruled by the Bachiads, a clan which was so exclusive that they only married within their clan. This led to their downfall (perhaps not in the way that you might initially expect). Under the Bachiads, Corinth was highly prosperous. Arts and culture advanced. Corinthian pottery was highly prized throughout Greece. The legend was that there was a Bachiad named Labda who was lame and no one would marry her. Eëtion married her. There was a prophecy that their son would ruin the Bachiads, so when he was born, the Bachiads went to kill him but found him too cute to kill. Cypselus grew up to overthrow the clan. He must have had high public support because he ruled for 30 years (655-625 BCE). On death, rule passed to his son Periander. Periander was a harsh but gifted ruler. He may have built the stone causeway. He was also considered among the Seven Sages of Greece.

The Seven Sages (Solon of Athens, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Aiene, Chilon of Sparta, Cleobulus of Lindos, and Periander of Corinth) were credited with poetry, political activity, performance, and wise sayings. They were Pan-Hellenistic cultural heroes and, in fact, one of the first manifestations of the Pan-Hellenistic.

And now we move to the polis best represented by archeological evidence, Athens. The legend was that Athens started in a contest in which Poseidon struck a rock from which salt water emerged. Meanwhile, Athena, the virginal goddess, captured the attention of one Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths. He chased her around and… um… became so excited that a bit of onanistic produce fell onto her leg and spilled upon the ground. From the ground sprouted the first Athenean. I’m not exactly sure how that was a contest (or who won), but there you go.

There were many resources in Athens including silver, marble, vast areas for growing olives, potter’s clay, and timber. They also had coastline and a harbor. Athenean pottery was valued much like Corinthian pottery.

Athens had a class called the Eupatridae who were the hereditary elite. The word means “those who had good fathers.” The Areopagus was a the council on the hill of Ares. They had the Archon, who were three leading men, a king, a commander-in-chief, and an assembly of citizens.

There was a revolt in the 630s in which Kylon sought to seize the Acropolis. Instead of following him, the populus forced him out. He escaped but his co-conspirators were being starved into submission trapped inside the temple. Megacles promised them safe passage if they would come out. They did and he killed them. This was considered a horrible sacrilege. It was believed that a curse was on them. Megacles was exiled. This shows some serious strains of Athenian society. Enter the law-giver Draco.

The myth is that Draco’s laws prescribed death for every offense (from which we get “Draconian”). This seems to be an overstatement. There is a code on homicide in which unintentional homicide was punishable by exile, a pilgrimage to Delphi for purification, and possible restoration. Upon the return of the transgressor, the family of the manslaughtered could vote to reinstate them. This is significant because it shows an attention to intent in a crime!

The elites kept tight control over resources which occasioned an economic crises (a sentence that sounds much like the early 2000s to me). There was a large class of debt (again…) and poverty. Solon shows up and, in 594 BCE, institutes a reform called the Seisachtheia, which means “shaking off of burdens” much like the Hebrew Jubilee. Debt was cancelled. The reason why the debtors liked this was clear, but the reason the debt-holders liked it was that it staved off an impending revolution. Solon prohibited any Athenian from holding another Athenian as a slave. Foreigners were fair game, of course.

There was also a right of legal intervention, that any citzen could intervene on behalf of any other citizen, which was a highly egalitarian concept. There was a new right to transfer a legal case before the delivery of a verdict from a magistrate to a jury of one’s peers. Solon promoted his ideas through poems and the public performance of them (imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a slam poet). I love this line and I wanted to remember it. Solon described himself as “a wolf surrounded by hounds.”

It’s important to notice that Solon was the first 3 dimensional historical figure we’ve seen so far.

The reforms didn’t eliminate all inequalities though. In 590 BCE, there was the Anarchia, which was the year without an Archon (and from where we get “anarchy”). Athens experimented with a board of governors, which failed. Regional factions developed: Lykourgos, led the merchants of the coastland, Megakles, the landholders of the plains, and Peisistratos, the farmers and the poor in the hills. The latter had great ambitions to rule. He made 3 attempts at tyranny.

First he wounded himself and showed up demanding armed guards, which he received and then attempted to use them to tyrannize. He was driven out. Second, he married Megakles’ daughter and brought her back to Athens with “Athena”, which was a peasant woman whom he dressed up as Athena, driving them in a chariot. The professor notes that the people of Athens were probably not fooled by this so much as it was meant as political theater. He was driven out again to the hills where he struck gold and became wealthy. He rallied a mercinary force and returned to Athens. He established his rule quickly.

He turned out to be an excellent ruler! He placed a small tax on produce which provided public funds. He used those funds for public works projects. He built fountains, gave loans, created a system of circuit judges who would travel to hear cases. He preserved Solon’s constitution. He built the Temple of Zeus Olympus, some of which still stands:

ImageHe also started the Pan-Athenian games. If you won, you got one of these:


One one side would be a drawing of the event that you won. On the other side was a drawing of Athena. Inside would be filled with costly olive oil.

He also began the Dionysus festival, which evolved into theater. He issued the first coinage:

ImageThat’s Athena on one side and her owl on the other. It started as an Athenian coin, but spread to use throughout Greece.

He was very popular and, in fact, died an old man who went around never having a bodyguard.