By Periklis Deligiannis
An original pilos-type bronze helmet, typical for the Spartans of the Classical period.
CONTINUED FROM PART I
The celebration of the “gymnopaidiae” was particularly important and it took place every year in Sparta, in the mid-summer (in the month of Hekatombaion, corresponding to July). The Spartan boys were preparing for this celebration that included sport games and it took place in honor of the divine brothers Apollo and Artemis (two of the main Greek gods), their mother Leto and in honor of Dionysus. From the year of the fifty-ninth Olympiad (544 BC), the celebration of the gymnopaidiae honored (in addition to these gods) the fallen hoplites of Sparta who died in the so called “Battle of the Champions” for conquering Thyreatis from Argos. Thyreatis was a strategic district in the eastern coast of the Peloponnesus (Thyrea was its main city). In time of war, the Spartans declared a cessation of the hostilities during the celebration of the gymnopaidiae. Girls and adult men participated as well in the feast. During the dance that accompanied the feast, the boys were making sport exercises which depicted the sports of wrestling and ‘pagration’ (a type of ancient Greek wrestling). Simultaneously they sang patriotic paeans (the poems of Alcman and Thales) in honor of the fallen warriors of Sparta. Plato points out that in the gymnopaidiae the boys went through “hard endurance”. This reference indicates the level of hard workout. Modern scholars believe that the gymnopaidiae were not symbolic but essentially agonistic.
The contest that needed the greatest mental strength was that of the “diamastigosis“, i.e. the competition of strength in pain. The contestants were Spartan teenager trainees who were whipped in front of watchers. Among them were the parents of the teens who encouraged them to endure the horrible pain or threatened them when they saw them close to failing (Lucian). Some teens left their last breath because of the whipping, falling dead in front of the watchers and their parents (as Plutarch mentions, in the Life of Lycurgos). These misfortunes were possibly rare but some scholars believe the opposite. The victory in this ultimate endurance competition, mental and physical, was extremely honored. The winners were called “vomonikes” and the state used to set up their statues in public places in order all the Spartans to see them and take an example of their courage.
Xenophon in his study on the Lacedaemonian Constitution, mentions another whipping contest for teen Spartans, different from the “diamastigosis”. In this competition, they placed on the altar of Artemis Orthia many pieces of cheese which were guarded by flagelliferous men. The purpose of the teens was to grab as many pieces of cheese they could, avoiding or enduring the blows of the flagellators. The winner was the teen who had collected the greatest number of pieces of cheese. The purpose of this event was the same as the informal disposition of the public garners for stealing food by the young Spartans: their practice in ensuring their food under any hostile and generally adverse circumstances.
There were team sports also, such as a game with a ball among two teams who were called “sphairees.” It was a hard game much alike to the modern American football. Another team game was a virtual battle between two ‘vouae’ or ‘ilae’ (groups of trainees), which often lost the character of reenactment, becoming sometimes bloody (probably ending abruptly due to the death of a trainee). I have already mentioned what a ‘voua’ or ‘agele’ was. The ‘ile’ (squadron, ‘ilae’ in the plural) was a group of boys and teens of different ages. The ilae coexisted with the vouae or agelae. While in the vouae the boys had to be peers, in the ilae there was no age limits. The number of members of the vouae and the ilae is unknown. Only for the ile there is an assessment that it consisted of twelve boys, a number suitable for the balance between their control and the success of their education and training.
Discipline was another key element provided by the Spartan ‘agoge’ to the students/trainees. The young Spartans learned not to argue with their superior commanders, not to indiscipline in their command and not to deny or ignore the laws established by Lycurgos. The discipline and faith in the judgment of his superior commander, officer or senior citizen-hoplite, was fundamental to the development of the young warrior, but also for the adult Spartan. However, this element of the Spartan character did not eliminate the private initiative of the warrior-citizen in critical moments. The Lacedaemonian hoplite could be a war machine that obeyed blindly the commands of the ‘ephoroi’ (curators), the kings and the warlords, or otherwise – when required – he could be an independent fighting unit, able to take immediately critical decisions, to organize and lead younger or inexperienced warriors (e.g. from the other city-states of the Peloponnesian Alliance). Encouraging food theft from state garners and other related exercises, played an important role in the development of this initiative.
A detailed diagram of the constitution, the institutions and the classes of the Spartan state.
The Spartan hoplite was an elite warrior in the battlefield as well as in the field of survival, even if he was completely alone in enemy territory. The famous Myriad Greek mercenaries survived in the heart of the Persian Empire after the death of their employer Cyrus the Younger, despite the shameful execution of their commanders by deceit: they managed to cross an enormous distance through enemy territory and eventually save themselves, carrying out one of the greatest feats in the World history. They managed to achieve this glorious deed using Lacedaemonian methods that they learned from their original commander, the Spartan Clearchus. This survival advantage was possessed not only by the Spartan full citizens (the ‘equals’) but also by the rest of the Lacedaemonians (‘hypomeiones’, ‘mothakes’, ‘perioikoi’, foreigner ‘trophimoi’ et al.), as it is exhibited by the military deeds of Lysander (victorious admiral against the Athenians in the Aegean), Gylippos (commander of the Syracusans against the Athenians during the Sicilian Campaign), Xanthippos (reformer of the Punic army during the First Punic War) et al. who were not “equals” (citizens) but ‘hypomeiones’ and ‘mothakes’. A typical example of the Spartan military initiative that reached the limits of disobedience, was the refusal of two Spartans ‘warlords’ (‘polemarchoi’, senior officers) to carry out the maneuver that king Agis ordered them to perform at the battle of Mantineia (418 BC), because they felt that their own assessment was the right one. But such cases were rare, coming always from the ‘warlords’, and did not affect adversely the military conflicts of Sparta. In general, the Spartan was obedient and disciplined.
The school education of the Spartan students/trainees fell short against that of the Athenians, but it was rather higher than that of many other Greek states. The Lacedaemonian teenager was taught reading and writing; he was listening narratives of military successes by the elders and learned poems of patriotic and inspirational character. He was also taught the famous “lakonizein” as it became known to the other Greeks, i.e. to speak very briefly and precisely, while emitting readiness and brightness by the few words he used. The other Greeks use to mention that “lakonizein is philosophizing”. The paidonomos or other elder citizens were listening the discussions of the teens during mealtimes and rest, interfering and indicating the errors and the correct expression. If they thought that a trainee was not responding or that he was responding inappropriately in a quip or a claim of another youth, they admonished or punished him.
This educational system ‘produced’ the formidable hoplites on whom the glory of Sparta relied on for many centuries. During the wars of Sparta against Thebes towards the end of the Lacedaemonian hegemony, an episode occurred that shows largely who really the Spartans were. Their Peloponnesian allies said to the Spartan king Agesilaos that they no longer wanted to follow the Spartans in their campaigns and go on under their hegemony. The reason they invoked was that the allies provided many soldiers for the wars of the Peloponnesian/Spartan alliance while the Spartans provided a few. Agesilaos gave them an indirect answer: he commanded the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies to sit separately the one group from the other. Then he ordered the ceramists to stand up. Some allies stood up while no Spartan did the same. Then he asked the carpenters to stand up. Some of the allies stood up. All the Spartans stayed in their seats. Thereafter Agesilaus ordered the blacksmiths to stand up, then the builders, then the merchants, until he called all the professions of the ancient Greeks. When he had finished, all the allies were standing. On the contrary, all the Spartans were sitting. This was expected, because the Spartan socio-military organization and regime prohibited any profession for its citizens, apart from the lifetime preparation for war. Then Agesilaus turned to his Peloponnesian allies and said to them cheerfully: “You can see now men how many more warriors than you, Sparta is sending to war!”
(1) Xenophon: CONSTITUTION OF THE LACEDAEMONIANS.
(2) Plutarch: PARALLEL LIVES.
(3) Aristotle: POLITICS.
(4) Diodorus Siculus: HISTORICAL LIBRARY
(5) Chrimes K.M.T. : SPARTA. A RE-EXAMINATION OF THE EVIDENCE, Manchester 1949.