Section 1 Spartan Mirage? How “Spartan” was life in Sparta?
“This is Sparta!” Leonidas bellows in the movie 300. But what was Sparta really? Popular movies and games have perpetuated a certain image of the Spartan as a military hero, a martyr for his city and a warrior trained from infancy to fight to the last man. But they are not alone in creating what historians of Sparta call the “Spartan mirage.” That fanciful image of a city of warriors unique in world history, self-sacrificing and brave beyond normal human behavior, was crafted long before the modern day in literature and artwork stretching back to the time of the Spartans themselves. The very word “Spartan” has come today to mean spare, without luxury or comfort, harsh and grueling. This image has even colored the traditional narratives of Sparta in textbooks. These narratives often present a tale of two cities, Sparta and Athens, with the purpose of comparing what are presented as two polar extremes in the Greek world. Athens in the fifth century is idealized as the intellectual and political wellspring of Western civilization—a democratic state enjoying a golden age of arts, philosophy, theater, literature and architecture. Meanwhile, Sparta is pictured as its primitive antithesis, an authoritarian state focused exclusively on military training and preparation for war with no interest in intellectual pursuits or innovation in government. In this narrative, Sparta’s militarist character is unique in the Greek world, the result of their precarious social order. The minority Spartan citizens in the region of Laconia ruled over a subservient population of helots including the people of neighboring Messenia, who provided the agricultural and household labor. While this freed the Spartans to devote themselves to other pursuits, the threat of a helot rebellion, according to the narrative, also forced the Spartan citizens to spend this free time honing their skill in war. With this constant threat, all aspects of life necessarily revolved around military preparation, from raising children, education, and the treatment of women, to rules on wealth, meals, and family living arrangements. The primary sources from Spartans like the poet Tyrtaios and from Greek observers like Herodotus and Xenophon and from later Roman historians like Plutarch all seem to verify this image of Sparta. And yet, scholars today have concluded that this image is part of a long-standing mirage that presents a fabrication rather than the reality of life in Sparta. Recent scholarship by historians challenges the portrayal of Sparta as more military camp than civil society and separates sources on its military preparation from our picture of the society and its institutions as a whole. Scholars are even challenging the primary sources on Sparta, calling attention to the bias of many of the contemporary authors whose Athenian sympathies inclined them to portray Spartans as unbeatable warriors to lessen the shame felt by Athenians after the loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. The sources in this section include both the primary pieces that have contributed to the traditional view of Sparta and the scholarly works that challenge that view as a mirage and a myth.
Tyrtaios, Poetry Fragment (600s BCE)
Tyrtaios was a Spartan lyric poet who lived during the seventh century BCE. Much of his poetry supports the traditional view of Sparta as a city devoted to military might, but he wrote during a time of war against the rebellious Messenian helots so it is not unexpected that his poetry would reflect the importance of military values and themes of war at the time.
I would neither call a man to mind nor put him in my tale for prowess in the race or the wrestling, not even had he the stature and strength of a Cyclops and surpassed in swiftness the Thracian Northwind, nor were he a comelier man than Tithonus and a richer than Midas or Cinyras, nor though he were a greater king than Pelops son of Tantalus, and had Adrastus’ suasiveness of tongue, nor yet though all fame were his save of warlike strength; for a man is not good in war if he have not endured the sight of bloody slaughter and stood nigh and reached forth to strike the foe. This is prowess, this is the noblest prize and the fairest for a lad to win in the world; a common good this both for the city and all her people, when a man standeth firm in the forefront without ceasing, and making heart and soul to abide, forgetteth foul flight altogether and hearteneth by his words him that he standeth by. Such a man is good in war; he quickly turneth the savage hosts of the enemy, and stemmeth the wave of battle with a will; moreover he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children’s and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he liveth evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight for country’s and children’s sake when fierce Ares brought him low.
Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (300s BCE)
Xenophon was an Athenian military commander and philosopher who lived during the fourth and fifth century BCE. As a military commander of a respected army of Greek mercenaries, Xenophon fought alongside Spartan commanders and gained great respect for Spartan soldiers and society. His histories are very favorable to the Spartan discipline and he emphasizes what he believes contributed to their military supremacy in his work.
Lycurgus thought the labour of slave women sufficient to supply clothing. He believed motherhood to be the most important function of freeborn woman. Therefore, in the first place, he insisted on physical training for the female no less than for the male sex: moreover, he instituted races and trials of strength for women competitors as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring. . . It might happen, however, that an old man had a young wife; and he observed that old men keep a very jealous watch over their young wives. To meet these cases he instituted an entirely different system by requiring the elderly husband to introduce into his house some man whose physical and moral qualities he admired, in order to beget children. . . . In case a man did not want to cohabit with his wife and nevertheless desired children of whom he could be proud, he made it lawful for him to choose a woman who was the mother of a fine family and of high birth, and if he obtained her husband’s consent, to make her the mother of his children. . . .
Instead of letting [the youth] be pampered in the matter of clothing, he introduced the custom of wearing one garment throughout the year, believing that they would thus be better prepared to face changes of heat and cold. As to the food, he required the prefect to bring with him such a moderate amount of it that the boys . . . would know what it was to go with their hunger unsatisfied; for he believed that those who underwent this training would be better able to continue working on an empty stomach, if necessary . . .
On the other hand, lest they should feel too much the pinch of hunger, while not giving them the opportunity of taking what they wanted without trouble he allowed them to alleviate their hunger by stealing something. . . . There can be no doubt then, that all this education was planned by him in order to make the boys more resourceful in getting supplies, and better fighting men. Someone may ask: But why, if he believed stealing to be a fine thing, did he have the boy who was caught beaten with many stripes? Because in all cases men punish a learner for not carrying out properly whatever he is taught to do. So the Spartans chastise those who get caught for stealing badly.
Plutarch, Sayings of Spartans (c. 100 CE)
Plutarch was a historian, biographer, and later priest at the Oracle at Delphi who was born in Greece and became a Roman citizen in the first century. His Sayings of Spartans is one of the very few sources on Spartan life but it is a controversial source to use on Sparta since it was written by a non-Spartan hundreds of years after the events recalled. Even the sources, now lost, that he used to write his Sayings of Spartans were written long after the Spartan lives they discuss.
Leonidas. When someone said, “Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun,” he said, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them? When someone else said, “They are near to us,” he said, “Then we also are near to them.” When Xerxes wrote, “Hand over your arms,” he wrote in reply, “Come and take them.”
Herodotus, The Histories (440 BCE)
Herodotus is a Greek historian of the fifth century who is often praised as the “father of history” since he is one of the first writers to collect evidence and offer analysis of events from the past. However, his work is laced with bias, inaccuracy, and even mythology and legends so it is treated cautiously as a primary source.
Lycurgus, a man of reputation among the Spartans, went to the oracle at Delphi. As soon as he entered the hall, the priestess said in hexameter: “You have come to my rich temple, Lycurgus,
A man dear to Zeus and to all who have Olympian homes. I am in doubt whether to pronounce you man or god, But I think rather you are a god, Lycurgus.” Some say that the Pythia also declared to him the constitution that now exists at Sparta, but the Lacedaemonians themselves say that Lycurgus brought it from Crete when he was guardian of his nephew Leobetes, the Spartan king. Once he became guardian, he changed all the laws and took care that no one transgressed the new ones. Lycurgus afterwards established their affairs of war: the sworn divisions, the bands of thirty, the common meals; also the ephors and the council of elders. . . .
Croesus, then, aware of all this, sent messengers to Sparta with gifts to ask for an alliance . . . [Spartans] welcomed the coming of the Lydians and swore to be his friends and allies; and indeed they were obliged by certain benefits which they had received before from the king. For the Lacedaemonians had sent to Sardis to buy gold, intending to use it for the statue of Apollo which now stands on Thornax in Laconia; and Croesus, when they offered to buy it, made them a free gift of it. For this reason, and because he had chosen them as his friends before all the other Greeks, the Lacedaemonians accepted the alliance. So they declared themselves ready to serve him when he should require, and moreover they made a bowl of bronze, engraved around the rim outside with figures, and large enough to hold twenty-seven hundred gallons, and brought it with the intention of making a gift in return to Croesus. . . .
. . . [Demaratus speaking to Xerxes] “So is it with the Lacedaemonians; fighting singly they are as brave as any man living, and together they are the best warriors on earth. They are free, yet not wholly free: law is their master, whom they fear much more than your men fear you. They do whatever it bids; and its bidding is always the same, that they must never flee from the battle before any multitude of men, but must abide at their post and there conquer or die.”
Plutarch, “Lycurgus” in Parallel Lives (c. 100 CE)
Plutarch was a historian, biographer, and later priest at the oracle at Delphi who was born in Greece and became a Roman citizen in the first century. His Parallel Lives provides biographical essays on famous figures from Greek and Roman history and pairs the individuals in order to show similar themes or character traits. Plutarch’s biographies of the Spartan leader Lycurgus is controversial since it was written by a non-Spartan hundreds of years after the events recalled.
The elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so‑called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taygetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state. . . . Their nurses, too, exercised great care and skill; they reared infants without swaddling-bands, and thus left their limbs and figures free to develop; besides, they taught them to be contented and happy, not dainty about their food, nor fearful of the dark, nor afraid to be left alone, nor given to contemptible peevishness and whimpering. This is the reason why foreigners sometimes brought Spartan nurses for their children. . . .
Of reading and writing, they learned only enough to serve their turn; all the rest of their training was calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle. Therefore, as they grew in age, their bodily exercise was increased; their heads were close-clipped, and they were accustomed to going bare-foot, and to playing for the most part without clothes. When they were twelve years old, they no longer had tunics to wear, received one cloak a year, had hard, dry flesh, and knew little of baths and ointments; only on certain days of the year, and few at that, did they indulge in such amenities. They slept together, in troops and companies, on pallet-beds which they collected for themselves, breaking off with their hands— no knives allowed—the tops of the rushes which grew along the river . . .
. . . And they steal what they fetch, some of them entering the gardens, and others creeping right slyly and cautiously into the public messes of the men; but if a boy is caught stealing, he is soundly flogged, as a careless and unskilful thief. They steal, too, whatever food they can, and learn to be adept in setting upon people when asleep or off their guard. But the boy who is caught gets a flogging and must go hungry. . . .
The boys make such a serious matter of their stealing, that one of them, as the story goes, who was carrying concealed under his cloak a young fox which he had stolen, suffered the animal to tear out his bowels with its teeth and claws, and died rather than have his theft detected.
Nigel Kennell, Spartans: A New History, (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester 2010), 1-25.
Nigel Kennell is Lecturer in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. Kennell has written four books on Spartan and Greek life and countless articles. He has challenged the traditional narrative of Sparta in favor of a view of their society that is not exclusively devoted to the military.
The Spartans of our imagination are familiar from films, novels, comics and even certain history books. The men were ruled by iron discipline and an utter devotion to the laws of their city and the freedom of Greece; the women were more or less equivalent to the liberated women of modern times. These images of the Spartan way of life have been transmitted down through the centuries from the pens of ancient Greek and Roman writers through the scribes of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance humanists and thence to the scriptwriters, pundits, and novelists of the twenty-first century. . . . In recent years, however, the traditional view of Sparta has come under increasingly intense scrutiny as historians and archeologists apply new techniques, perspectives and occasionally even new pieces of evidence to the question of what it was to be a Spartan.
As a result, the long-standing consensus over the fundamental nature of Spartan society has begun to crumble. In its place, intense debate has arisen over each and every facet of what we thought we knew about Sparta and the Spartans. Even the very definition of “proper” Spartan history has changed as more and more specialists examine different aspects of post-classical Sparta. . . . In no other area of ancient Greek history is there a greater gulf between the common conception of Sparta and what specialists believe and dispute.
. . . Constructing a history of Sparta is bedeviled by two complicating factors—the lack of a corpus of writings by Classical Spartan authors that might illuminate the inner workings of Spartan institutions and the mindset of the Spartans themselves and the existence of a large corpus of writings by non-Spartans claiming to do just that. This is the famous “Spartan mirage” through which the image of the historical city gradually became transformed through the work of philosophers, biographers, historians, and romantics into that of a radically unique state unlike any other in Greece. . .
. . . If Tyrtaeus’ poems conform to our expectation of what Spartan poetry was like, Alcman’s do not. His poetry reflects a sophisticated society reveling in the good life: Song, dance, physical beauty, splendid textiles, and the brightness of gold figure prominently . . . Archeological finds, notably from the shrine of Orthia itself, also attest to a love of luxury, humor, and even frivolity in the early Archaic period that hardly jibes with the dour, militaristic Spartans of the ancient (and modern) imagination.
Stephen Hodkinson, “Was Classical Sparta a Military Society?” in Sparta and War, eds. Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell (2006) 111–62.
Stephen Hodkinson is Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham and Director of the University’s Center for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies. His expertise on Sparta specifically and Greek warfare and society more generally have led the modern day city of Sparta to grant him honorary citizenship. He has written more than eight books and edited volumes on Spartan history.
[The aspect of Spartan military] on which I shall concentrate – is the question of the effect of the Spartans’ approach to military matters upon the character of Spartan society. Was Plato right, for instance, to claim that key institutions such as the common meals, the gymnasia, hunting and the krypteia were devised with a view to war? . . .
. . . Scholars have often wanted to view the Spartans’ need to keep the large helot populations of Lakonia and Messenia under permanent subjection as the major driving force behind their creation of a cohesive society of citizens sharing a common public lifestyle. This hypothesis has naturally led scholars to assume that the society thus created must have been dominated by the requirements of military security. . . .
However, as I have already argued elsewhere, to ascribe the transformation and subsequent character of Spartan society to the helot problem is too extreme. Sparta was not unique in reducing a native population to a condition of servitude during the archaic period. . . .
. . . Indeed, so little were the Spartans normally in fear of a helot threat that they went about their daily lives unarmed. . . . In sum, there are no grounds for assuming purely from the presence of the helots that Spartan society must have possessed an especially military character.
Clearly, there are some respects in which military affairs were more prominent in Spartiate life than within the life of citizens in other poleis. The most basic respect was that liability for military service, in its primary form of hoplite fighting, extended to all Spartiates between the ages of 20 and 60. No other Greek polis equated citizenship with military service to quite this extent; although . . . all Greek poleis had very high rates of military participation. . . .
. . . Contemporary sources are silent about the provision of specialized military training for adult Spartiates. Not only, as we have seen, are the implications of the references to collective formation drill ambiguous; there is no mention at all of weapons practice or of any sort of mock combat training. . . .
. . . Evidence for their other daily activities suggests that adult Spartiates had sizeable amounts of time available for personal business, such as approaches to their patrons or pederastic partners, political negotiations, economic transactions in the agora, and supervision of their estates. An adult Spartiate’s daily life was not excessively dominated by his civic duties, still less by those aspects of his duties that pertained to his role as a warrior.
Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History (Macmillan, 2002) 1–50.
Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College and Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University. He has written or edited over thirty books on Spartan and ancient Greek history and continues to support much of the traditional narrative on Sparta.
Helots are the single most important human fact about ancient Sparta. . . . The Helots provided the Spartans with the economic basis of their unique lifestyle. They vastly outnumbered the full Spartan citizens . . . The Spartans were exceptionally successful masters, keeping the Helots in subjection for more than three centuries. But they did so at considerable cost. The threat of Helot revolt, especially from the Messenians, was almost constant, and the Spartans responded by turning themselves into a sort of permanently armed camp, Fortress Sparta. Male Spartan citizens were forbidden any other trade, profession or business other than war, and they acquired the reputation of being the Marines of the entire Greek world, a uniquely professional and motivated fighting force. . . .
The legend of Lycurgus postulated a remarkable ‘Year Zero’ scenario when, at a moment of deep crisis, he was able to persuade his fellow Spartans to introduce the comprehensive and compulsory educational cycle called the Agoge . . . This system of education, training, and socialization turned boys into fighting men whose reputation for discipline, courage, and skill was unsurpassed. . . .
The Spartan myth was persuasively labelled a ‘mirage’ in the 1930s by the French scholar François Ollier, because the relation between the myth and reality was and is sometimes so hard to perceive without distortion. . . . Perhaps the most interesting and controversial of all its many facets is the position of Spartan women. . . . An Athenian girl would receive no formal education beyond training for the domestic duties required of a good Athenian wife and mother . . .
In sharp and complete contrast, Spartan women were—allegedly—active, prominent, powerful, surprisingly independent-minded . . . Girls had a similar education to that of boys, though separate . . . they threw the javelin and discus, wrestled . . . all completely naked and in full public view, to the consternation of Greek visitors from other cities. . . .
Spartan women could own property, including land . . . Helot women and men did the housework for them . . . Sexually too they seemed to be independent . . .
Andrew G Scott, “Plural Marriage and the Spartan State,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 60, H. 4 (2011) 413–24
Andrew Scott is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Villanova University. His primary expertise lies in Roman civilization and the history of Cassius Dio although he has written several articles on Spartan society.
According to several ancient sources, Spartan custom allowed for plural marriage, whereby two or more men might sire children by the same woman. It has been written that “[e]vidence for the custom of wife-sharing. . . is so unequivocal that it is impossible to disbelieve it altogether.” Taking this comment as a starting point, I suggest that an understanding of the institution of plural marriage is crucial for a greater understanding of archaic and classical Sparta. . . . since the institution of the practice is attributed to Lycurgus, we are within the limits of the so-called Spartan mirage . . . The purpose of marriage at Sparta was the propagation of healthy offspring, and in such a system, the value of a marriage was calculated with regard to the ability to produce such children. Spartan men and women were meant to marry at the acme of their physical fitness and so organized exercise was prescribed for both sexes. Once the marriage had taken place, men and women were not to spend an unlimited amount of time together, and forced separation was meant to increase desire and therefore produce more vigorous offspring. . . . Men and women allegedly did not cohabit until much later in life, probably not until the time that their first male offspring would have entered the agõgê. While the mother presumably lived with the offspring of the marriage, the male lived with his fellow Spartiates while his first children were still young. This weakened sense of paternity can also be seen in the relationships between Spartiates and younger boys. As Xenophon specifically points out, all Spartan males acted as fathers to Spartan boys . . . In a social system that did not emphasize the rights and emotional engagements of paternity, the practice of wife sharing accords with the sense of collective parenting. . . . Based on its ideological association of egalitarianism and consequent similarity to other social constructs that were conceived prior to the classical period, formalized plural marriage as an institution most likely dates to the archaic period, and the goal of the institution was the production of the finest offspring and to exploit the procreative ability of the most fertile women. On an ideological level, it most likely arose out of the sense of egalitarianism that was officially imposed on various Spartan institutions at this time.
Agnes Bencze, “Art and Craft in Archaic Sparta,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000)
Agnes Bencze is Assistant Professor of Art History at Hungary’s Pázmány Péter Catholic University. She received a Mellon Foundation grant to study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012.
Archaeological finds . . . show that the image of Sparta, as a city-state without art dedicated exclusively to warfare, cannot be simply extrapolated to the Archaic period. In fact, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., and especially in the first half of the sixth century B.C., Sparta and its region, Lakonia, had its own workshops in several genres of artistic craft, such as vase painting, metalwork, ivory and bone carving, and even stone sculpture, in which artists created works in an original, often well-recognizable style with a distinct iconographic repertoire. Painted pottery was produced in Lakonian workshops already in the eighth century B.C., in a local version of the geometric style, and circulated to most regions and centers of the Greek world. After the mainly nonfigural decoration of the Orientalizing period, around 630 B.C., Lakonian vase painters adopted the black-figure technique from Corinth . . . Although it cannot be compared to the Athenian in quantity and in artistic invention, Lakonian black-figure vase painting produced a characteristic style and reached even remote regions of the Mediterranean . . .
. . . Lakonian black-figure painters had a predilection for special variations on conventional mythological scenes, symbolic figures like winged human figures, sirens, and sphinxes, and floral ornamental patterns including pomegranates and tendrils . . . An outstanding field of Lakonian art and craft was bronzeworking, in particular small-scale bronze sculpture and the production of decorated bronze vessels. Solid cast, small-scale bronze figures usually embellished vessels, tripods, mirrors, and other utensils. . . . Lakonian bronze vessels are distinguished essentially on stylistic grounds from contemporary Corinthian, Argive, Athenian, and other products, taking into account both the shape and technical traits of the vessels themselves and the rendering of the figural decoration. One particular class of bronze objects can be entirely ascribed to Sparta on the account of their special iconography: disk-shaped mirrors supported by figures of nude girls . . . Literary sources confirm that in the sixth century B.C., Sparta was also a major artistic center and home to several important artists and workshops. Some of the artists may have been immigrants, mainly of East Greek origin . . . Others seem to have been born and educated in Sparta . . . While these works of art, however famous in late antiquity, are now lost, we can rely on some extant stone sculptures for an idea of Lakonian large-scale art . . . especially the monumental piece found in Chrysapha, and an early sixth-century B.C. female head in Olympia, which can be connected with Sparta on firm stylistic grounds.
History Through Literature
Alcman was a lyric poet from Sparta in the seventh century BCE. Most of Alcman’s poetry was lost in the Middle Ages except for brief lines included in other works. However, in the mid-1800s, a piece of papyrus was found in Saqqara Egypt containing one-hundred lines of an Alcman poem called the “Partheneion” (Maiden Song.) This piece would most likely have been performed at a public festival in Sparta by a chorus of maidens. The two leading roles would have been Agido and Hagesikhora. Additional poems by Alcman were found and translated in the 1960s after archeologists found a garbage dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt containing thousands of pieces of papyrus with literature and other writings.
|And I sing the radiance of Agido, seeing|
|her as the sun, which for us|
|is shown by Agido—she is the eyewitness|
|to shine with its sunlight. But for me to praise her|
|or to blame her is not allowed by the glorious leader of the chorus|
|No, she does not allow me. For that one appears radiantly to be|
|outstanding, as when someone|
|sets among grazing cattle a horse,|
|well-built, a prize-winner, with thundering hooves,|
|something from out of those dreams that happen underneath a rock.|
|Don’t you see? One is a racehorse|
|from Paphlagonia. But the mane|
|of the other one, my kinswoman|
|Hagesikhora, blossoms on her head|
|like imperishable gold.|
|And the silver look of her face—|
|what can I tell you openly?|
|She is Hagesikhora.|
|But whoever is second to Agido in beauty,|
|let her be a Scythian horse running against a Lydian one.|
|I say this because the Pleiades,|
|as we bring the sacred veil for the Dawn Goddess,|
|are passing through the ambrosial night, rising up over the horizon|
|like Sirius the star, to do battle with us.|
|It is true: all the royal purple|
|in the world cannot resist.|
|No fancy snake-bracelet,|
|made of pure gold, no headdress|
|from Lydia, the kind that girls|
|with tinted eyelids wear to make themselves fetching.|
|No, even the hair of Nanno is not enough.|
|Nor goddess-like Areta,|
|nor Thylakis and Kleesithera;|
|you wouldn’t say so even if you went to the house of Ainesimbrota.|
|Even if Astaphis were mine,|
|or Philylla gazed at me,|
|Damareta too, and lovely Ianthemis,|
|still, it is Hagesikhora who wears me down.|
|For she, with her beautiful ankles,|
|Hagesikhora, is not there.|
|She stays at the side of Agido.|
|And she gives authority to our festive actions.|
Simonides of Ceos, “On Those Who Died at Thermopylae” (400s BCE)
Simonides was a fifth-century BCE Greek lyric poet from the island of Ceos in the Aegean. His skill in composing epitaphs and poetry memorializing fallen warriors apparently won him great renown and many requests for his work during the Greco-Persian wars. His life and work are often difficult to date since most of his own work is lost. However, much insight has been gained from new pieces by Simonides found at the dig in Oxyrhynchus Egypt.
Of those who at Thermopylae were slain,
Glorious the doom, and beautiful the lot;
Their tomb an altar: men from tears refrain
To honor them, and praise, but mourn them not.
Such sepulchre, nor drear decay
Nor all-destroying time shall waste; this right have they.
Within their grave the home-bred glory
Of Greece was laid: this witness gives
Leonidas the Spartan, in whose story
A wreath of famous virtue ever lives.
Simonides of Ceos, “Epitaph”
The famous epitaph was supposedly written by Simonides of Ceos at the request of the Greek victors in the Greco-Persian wars and carved on a cenotaph at Thermopylae. It has been reproduced in other works over the centuries although the original cenotaph was destroyed.
Go, passerby, to Sparta tell
Obedient to her laws we fell
Visual Source Materials
Spartan Coin (200s BCE)
The constitution of Lycurgus commanded that gold and silver be removed from Sparta and that all currency be reduced to iron rods to discourage commerce in luxury items and the focus on acquisition of wealth. The lack of coins during the centuries of Spartan dominance in the Greek world seems to support the existence of such a policy on currency. The first Spartan coins seem to have been created in very small quantities and were not minted until the reign of Spartan king Areus I in the mid-third century, hundreds of years after other Greek cities began minting coins and well after Spartan military dominance had faded.
Bronze Statuette of Spartan Girl (500s BCE)
Despite the myth that Sparta was not engaged in culture or artistic endeavors unconnected to the military, Sparta was actually well-known for its bronzework, in the sixth century BCE, especially engravings and small bronze statues and figures. This figure shows a girl participating in either a race or a dance. Scholars who claim she is running note her off the shoulder tunic that does not reach her ankles – a display of the woman’s body that would not have been accepted in many Greek cities-—and her pose of athleticism. This type of garment would have been worn at the Heraea, a footrace by women dedicated to the goddess Hera and the only Olympic competition in which women could engage.
In the 1960s, newly discovered collections of the Spartan poet Alcman’s poems were translated and published. These had been unearthed from an ancient garbage dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Because the Egyptians had copied and preserved much of the Greek literature, philosophy and art, the Egyptian dump was an incredible source of ancient Greek culture. This piece of papyrus is called Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 8 and was originally discovered by archeologists Grenfell and Hunt in 1897 during the initial decades of the Oxyrhynchus dig. They published its translation the following year. The actual papyrus is 61 by 109 millimeters and contains seven lines of poetry.
Rider Painter, Black-figure Kylike (500s BCE)
This kylike, or shallow drinking cup, was created by a Spartan artist called the “rider painter” after one of his other pieces. This cup shows a clear example of the black-figure style of pottery painting that was common in Sparta in the sixth century BCE. The scene is interpreted by scholars as either a depiction of Achilles or Cadmus but is agreed to be a mythological scene, the most common theme among Spartan painters.
Jacques-Louis David, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814)
This oil on canvas painting by French painter Jacques-Louis David depicts Spartan king Leonidas in the center surrounded by his 300 Spartan warriors who prepare to hold the mountain pass at Thermopylae against the Persian invaders in the Greco-Persian Wars. On the far left, a man carves into the mountain pass the lines that Simonides of Ceos actually wrote later to commemorate those who died: “Go passerby to Sparta tell, Obedient to her law we fell.” David was not the only modern artist to glorify the sacrifice at Thermopylae and contribute to the perpetuation of the Spartan mirage.
History and the Other Disciplines: Multi-Spectral Imaging
One of the greatest difficulties scholars have in refuting or challenging elements of the Spartan mirage and coming to a closer understanding of what life was like in Sparta is the absence of large quantities of reliable source material. The best remedy for this, and the best opportunity for improving our knowledge of ancient societies like Sparta, is to find additional usable texts from these civilizations. Scientific technology is now aiding in that pursuit with the introduction of multi-spectral imaging to help recover what was previously considered illegible writing on damaged papyri. Multi-spectral imaging (MSI) was originally developed by NASA to map the surface of Mars but was introduced to historians to try to decipher some badly burned Roman manuscripts buried after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Now its use is being extended to the Oxyrhynchus papyri, an unparalleled archeological source for new works of Greek literature previously believed to have been lost to history. Multi-spectral imaging provides multiple pictures of the writing taken using different filters that capture different wavelengths of light including those in the infrared and ultraviolet ranges. This allows researchers to find the best possible light wavelength for distinguishing ink from papyrus and opens up an enormous number of pages of papyrus, previously thought unusable, for study and translation. In 2002, a joint partnership was formed between Brigham Young University, where researchers had developed a way to convert the NASA technology into a format for reading ancient manuscripts, and the Oxford University libraries where the Oxyrhynchus papyri was held.
The image below shows the original illegible text and beside it the text revealed by MSI.
Historical Thinking Prompts
Active Learning Assignment
Transcription of ancient papyrus – an international volunteer project
In 1896 in Oxyrhynchus Egypt, two British archeology students, Bernard Grenfel and Arthur Hunt, began a dig at a massive ancient garbage dump. They were hoping to find a few scraps of papyrus with Greek literature. Instead they found one of the most important archeological sites of the ancient world. Here, preserved in the dry sandy soil were thousands upon thousands of papyrus pages, many of which contained works of Greek literature that had been believed lost forever. Among those Greek works of literature were new pieces by Simonides of Ceos and the Spartan poet Alcman that give us new insight into what life was really like in Sparta.
Today the dig at Oxyrhynchus continues as does the work of translating the uncovered papyrus. Sadly, after a hundred years of constant work and the publication of over 77 volumes of translations, it is estimated only about 2% of the find has been translated.
In this assignment you will engage in the Oxford Archives project through the Ancient Lives site, a volunteer project created in 2011 that allows regular citizens around the world to help translate this lost treasure of Greek and Egyptian literature and history. The new technology used in the project allows anyone, regardless of their language skills or knowledge of history, to help with the work of translation by simply clicking the letters that resemble the shapes you see.
Go to the Ancient Lives site and click “start transcribing” to give your best effort at contributing to this work of uncovering the past.
For a chance to see the papyrus alongside the translation of that papyrus by a professional go to http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/POxy/ for the Oxyrhynchus Online collection of translated papyrus. A search by author for Alcman will pull up several examples relevant to the discussion of Spartan literature.
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