The river Eurotas, near Sparta.
CONTINUED FROM PART I
On the other hand, the Spartan society was not so rigid and robust as it has been considered by most of the modern scholars. When not exercising in the art of war, a Spartan used to entertain himself with convivialities
Woe to any Spartan who demonstrated to his comrades even suspicion of cowardice in battle. And more to the one who would give ground in battle, even if he wanted to avoid a useless death that would not have any significant benefit for the state. In the rest of his life he would face any kind of discriminations, political, social and personal, that they often reached or exceeded the limits of humiliation. It was the expression par excellence of the cruelness of the Spartan society, which could not forgive the offense of undershooting the basic rule of the city. The tresas (i.e. the one who trembles because of fear) as they used to call satirically the one who demonstrated this behavior, was facing the life-time contempt of his fellow citizens. Their poisonous teasing and the social isolation accompanied him everywhere. He was obliged by the law to wear clothes with colored linen pieces sewn to them and to always have shaven half his beard (as a half-man because of cowardice). Every citizen had the right to beat him with impunity and no one wanted to marry his daughter to him. This celibacy of the tresas brought about to him also a fine by the state, because he deprived it of new warriors (his children who would not be born). Additionally he was loosing his civil rights and his farm, with whatever this entailed in terms of survival. He was excluded from even the right to make formal legal agreements or contracts. Even if the tresas was not excluded from the citizenry (which occurred from time to time), his humiliation did not stop. His comrades felt ashamed to have him in their syskenia (see part I) or exercising in wrestling with him. During the pyrrheche (Spartan war dance) they used to send him in the worst places. When the tresas met on the way his fellow citizens, even the youngest one, he had to step aside in front of them. The spectrum of such a miserable life partly explains the legendary courage of the Spartan hoplite, even when he had to confront the human ‘waves’ of hundreds of thousands of Asiatic warriors in the battle of Thermopylae, even when he knew very well that death was inevitable. As mentioned, those who lacked bravery were relegated to the class of the hypomeiones. They were loosing their civil rights, their farmstead, and they generally ceased to belong to the ruling class of the state, becoming non-citizen Spartans.
A typical Corinthian helmet from excavations. An invention of the Corinthians, Dorian relatives and allies of Sparta, it was popular to the Spartans until it was replaced by the pure Laconic pilos-helmet which eventually prevailed in their army.
However the tresas had the opportunity to make amends and regain his rights, especially when the state was in danger. One such case was the opportunity given to the survivors of the Spartan military disaster in the island of Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War (425 BC). As we are informed by Thucydides, the survivors were treated by their fellow citizens as cowards (tresae in the plural), although their death would be absolutely useless. But they did not loose completely their status as Spartans and they were allowed to make amends. When the survivors of Sphacteria demonstrated extreme bravery and selflessness in combat, they were restored back to their rights. This policy is obviously related to the problem of the small numbers, that the omoioi (full Spartan citizens) were already facing. The disaster in Sphacteria confronting the Athenian raiders, had already cost a large percentage of them as casualties (dead and prisoners of war).
The Romans, imitatingin many aspects the military organization of Sparta, also used to punish hard those lacking in battles. One such incident occurred after the destruction of the Roman army in the battle of Cannae (216 BC) by Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general. The Roman Senate under the pressure of public opinion, considered implicitly (and unjustifiably) as cowards the officers and legionnaires who survived the battle. Thus these ‘lacking soldiers’ formed two new legions, which the Senate adversely sent for military service in Sicily, repeatedly rejecting their request to fight again in Italy. Sicily was not considered by the Romans as an Italian territory but a province, a foreign land (island) inhabited by Greeks (comprising more than 90 % of its population). Eventually the Senate allowed them to fight on African soil during the Roman invasion of the metropolitan Carthaginian territory, where they excelled in the battle of Zama (202 BC). Only then they were allowed to return to Italy after 14 years of substantial exile. The punishments of Rome to those men lacking in decisive battles, although equivalent to exile, were not as hard as those imposed by Sparta on its own hoplites accused of something similar. The Spartan penalty was much more cruel, equivalent to their lifelong humiliation, a punishment worse than exile.
A Boedromia ceremony by Spartans, in honor of Apollo: reenactment by the Australian Association Ancient Hoplitikon.
The stigmatization of those Spartans retreating in battle, may indicate a society unduly harsh and mentally rigid. But the men and women of Sparta had at least one good reason for this merciless reaction to an otherwise human emotion, such as fear of death. This reason is the battle system of the phalanx of hoplites. The hoplite shield despite its powerful construction, left uncovered the right side of its owner. Because of the dense formation of the phalanx during the battle, the right side of the hoplite was protected by the shield of his comrade who was on his right. Similarly, the unsecured right of the latter was protected by the shield of the next hoplite on his right and so on. The helmet, the cuirass and the greaves of the hoplite were used for his personal protection. But the shield was the most important defensive weapon because it was necessary for the protection of the entire phalanx, as Plutarch informs us in his ‘Ethics’. If a hoplite decided to throw (get rid of) his shield because of fear (called ripsaspis, i.e. the shield-thrower) abandoning the phalanx, he would expose the right side of his comrade to his left. Thus the latter would be obliged to move his shield in order to protect the entire surface of his chest, exposing to danger the next hoplite on his left. The same would be done by the next hoplite to the left and so on. It would be a domino-type reaction that would disintegrate and dissolve the phalanx, resulting in its defeat. The protection of the right side of each hoplite by the one next to him, ensured the absolute consistency and defense of the phalanx. The ripsaspis (shield-thrower) could cause the destruction and decimation of the entire Spartan or any other Greek phalanx.
Nowadays, most military experts consider the Spartan hoplites as the first real elite soldiers in World History. This conclusion is not surprising. Almost the only criterion for characterizing a Spartan man as good or no good, depended on his behavior in battle. What should never happen to him, was to lack in battle. The entire social and political system of Sparta, the entire society – even the parents, wife and children of a Spartan – supported this fundamental rule of the city, preferring the death of their son, brother, father or husband in battle than the embarrassing retreat and the sad life of a tresas for him and his family. This psychology that exceeded the human limits, combined with the high civil and military education and training, the sophisticated military equipment, the high-level tactics and organization, created the unbreakable war machine that the Spartan army had been.
(1) Xenophon: The State of the Lacedaemonians.
(2) Plutarch: Parallel Lives.
(3) Aristotle: Politics.
(4) Diodorus Siculus: Historical Library.
(5) Plutarch: Ethics.
(5) Chrimes K.M.T.: Sparta. A re-examination of the evidence, Manchester 1949.