Sparta’s Counterfeit Myth

Myke Cole ushers us into the month of August with a fine overview of how Spartan cosplay and mimicry infects right wing movements in the US and abroad (“The Sparta Fetish is a Cultural Cancer”, The New Republic). He rightly–and for some, surprisingly–points out that the myth of Sparta was something carefully cultivated by the Lacedaimonians themselves (and, when useful, by opportunistic statesmen like the Athenian Themistokles)

This fight against the misinformation of Spartan myth and its reuse in the modern world is constant and perennial. Last year,  Dr. Sarah Bond published a piece for Eidolon  about the appropriation of Spartan iconography and values in the modern world (“This Is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance with Sparta is a Bad One”).  Neville Morely’s subsequent post on the use of Sparta by the far right is also a must-read.

If you live in Europe, the coasts in the US or some other blissful bubble, you may be unaware of the fact that the motto μολὼν λαβέ now adorns weapons and military gear of all kinds and is a favorite of certain right-wing political affiliations.

Plutarch, Apophthegmata Lakonica 225 c11-12

“When Xerxes wrote again, “send me your weapons”, [Leonidas] wrote back, “Come and take them”

Πάλιν δὲ τοῦ Ξέρξου γράψαντος ‘πέμψον τὰ ὅπλα’, ἀντέγραψε ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’

(When people hear I teach ancient Greek and tell me they love Sparta, I take the same deep breath I take when others ask about ‘Ancient Aliens’ or Atlantis. ‘Sparta’ is a production of modern culture as much as ancient. Every time I have taught the Peloponnesian War I found myself hoping it might turn out different this time…)

In addition to the eugenics, racism, and fascism at home on this constellation of beliefs, there is this: Sparta was a militarized state which enslaved its neighbors and produced little of worth for the world beyond a mythologized memory of a great fighting force.

When it comes to everything else for which we prize ancient Greece, Sparta was terribly and completely deficient. Tragedy, Epic poetry, lyric poetry, visual art, vases, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, science, history, rhetoric, everything Western cultural chauvinist champion about the ‘Greek miracle’* developed every where else in Greece.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 3.7.24

“In Sparta, literary pursuits will win less honor than they would in Athens, while endurance and bravery will earn more.”

Minus Lacedaemone studia litterarum quam Athenis honoris merebuntur, plus patientia ac fortitudo.

Read Cole’s article. Read Bond’s piece. And here is some fun And, here are some selections from Spartan ‘culture’. Martial poetry; pithy sayings; puppy sacrifices. If enslaving entire populations, dedicating their whole culture to a war machine, and killing puppies is not enough for you to rethink Sparta, well there’s just not much left to say.

*These are scare quotes. Even as a Hellenist I do not believe in this terminology.

Sparta left some martial poetry. It is, well, uninspiring.

Tyrtaeus, Fr. 10.1-2

“It is a fine thing when a noble man falls
In the first ranks while struggling for his country.”

τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον·

Tytaeus, fr. 11.5-8

“Make your life hateful and make the dark fates
Of death as dear as the rays of the sun.
For you know the destructive deeds of much-wept Ares
And you have learned well the fury of fierce war.”

ἐχθρὴν μὲν ψυχὴν θέμενος, θανάτου δὲ μελαίνας
κῆρας αὐγαῖς ἠελίοιο φίλας.
ἴστε γὰρ ὡς ῎Αρεος πολυδακρύου ἔργ’ ἀΐδηλα,
εὖ δ’ ὀργὴν ἐδάητ’ ἀργαλέου πολέμου

Callinus 1. 12-21

“There’s no way for a man to avoid death once it is fated,
Not even if he is a descendant of the immortal gods.
Often when someone has fled strife and the din of spears
Death’s fate will find him at home.
The unsteady man isn’t dear to the people or longed for,
They grieve for him a little even if he suffers something great.
But the whole host misses a strong-hearted man when he dies
A man the equal of living heroes.
They look at him like a tower before their eyes_
He does work of many though he is just one.”

οὐ γάρ κως θάνατόν γε φυγεῖν εἱμαρμένον ἐστὶν
ἄνδρ’, οὐδ’ εἰ προγόνων ἦι γένος ἀθανάτων.
πολλάκι δηϊοτῆτα φυγὼν καὶ δοῦπον ἀκόντων
ἔρχεται, ἐν δ’ οἴκωι μοῖρα κίχεν θανάτου,
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἔμπης δήμωι φίλος οὐδὲ ποθεινός
τὸν δ’ ὀλίγος στενάχει καὶ μέγας ἤν τι πάθηι·
λαῶι γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς
θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ’ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·
ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·
ἔρδει γὰρ πολλὼν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.

The most famous epigram associated with Sparta was not composed by a Spartan:

Simonides, Epigram (Greek Anthology,7.249): An Epitaph at Thermopylae

“Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here
obedient to their commands.”

Ω ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις, ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Aelian, 13.19

“Cleomenes the Laconian asserted—in the manner of Spartans—that Homer was a Spartan poet because he spoke about the right way to go to war and that Hesiod was the Helot’s poet, since he talks about how best to farm.”

῎Ελεγεν ὁ Κλεομένης Λακωνικῶς κατὰ τὸν ἐπιχώριον τρόπον τὸν ῞Ομηρον Λακεδαιμονίων εἶναι ποιητήν, ὡς χρὴ πολεμεῖν λέγοντα· τὸν δὲ ῾Ησίοδον τῶν Εἱλώτων, λέγοντα ὡς χρὴ γεωργεῖν.

Part of what has helped to spread the Spartan myth and mystique are the collections of sayings attributed to Spartans made centuries after the fall of the city. The cottage industry of constructing ‘Sparta’ as an austere, manly, independent utopia is two thousand years old. And it is a selected, curated load of nonsense.

Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans (Apophthegmata Lakonica )

208b “When someone was commending a politician for his talent at amplifying minor matters, Agesilaos remarked that a cobbler is not good at his job if he puts big shoes on small feet.”

Ἐπαινοῦντος δέ τινος ῥήτορα ἐπὶ τῷ δυνατῶς αὔξειν τὰ μικρὰ πράγματα, οὐδὲ σκυτοτόμον, ἔφησεν, εἶναι σπουδαῖον, ὃς μικρῷ ποδὶ ὑποδήματα μεγάλα περιτίθησιν.

215d “[Agis] said that the Spartans never asked “how many” of the enemy there were, but only “where are they”.

Οὐκ ἔφη δὲ τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους ἐρωτᾶν πόσοι εἰσὶν οἱ πολέμιοι, ἀλλὰ ποῦ εἰσίν.

222e “When asked what kind of men the Ionians were, he said “bad free men but good slaves”

Ἐρωτηθεὶς δὲ ὁποῖοι ἄνδρες εἰσὶν οἱ Ἴωνες, “ἐλεύθεροι μέν,” ἔφη, “κακοί, δοῦλοι δὲ ἀγαθοί.”

217d “In response to the Athenian who said the Spartans were uneducated, he said “At least we are the only ones who have learned nothing evil from you.”

Πρὸς δὲ τὸν ἀμαθεῖς καλοῦντα τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους Ἀθηναῖον, “μόνοι γοῦν,” εἶπεν, “ἡμεῖς οὐδὲν μεμαθήκαμεν παρ᾿ ὑμῶν κακόν.”

218 “In response to someone who praised a musician and was amazed as his talent, he said, “Sir, what prize will you have left for good men when you praise a musician this much?”

Πρὸς δὲ τὸν ἐπαινοῦντα κιθαρῳδὸν καὶ θαυμάζοντα τὴν δύναμιν αὐτοῦ, “ὦ λῷστε,” ἔφη, “ποῖον γέρας παρὰ σοῦ τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς ἀνδράσιν ἔσται, ὅταν κιθαρῳδὸν οὕτως ἐπαινῇς;”

220a “While he listened to a musician play, [Demaratus] remarked, “he doesn’t seem so bad at this nonsense”

Ψάλτου δὲ ἀκροώμενος, “οὐ κακῶς,” εἶπε, “φαίνεταί μοι φλυαρεῖν.”

221f “When someone showed him a city wall and asked if it was strong and high, he said, “isn’t this a place for women?”

Ἐπιδεικνυμένου δέ τινος αὐτῷ τεῖχος καὶ πυνθανομένου εἰ καρτερὸν καὶ ὑψηλόν, “οὐ δὴ γυναικών;” εἶπεν.

224 e-f “This is what Leotychidas said to Philip, the master of the Orphic mysteries who was extremely poor but was claiming that those initiated into the mysteries by him would be blessed after the end of life: “Fool, why don’t you die as quickly as possible so you can stop whining about your bad luck and poverty?”

Πρὸς Φίλιππον τὸν ὀρφεοτελεστὴν παντελῶς πτωχὸν ὄντα, λέγοντα δ᾿ ὅτι οἱ παρ᾿ αὐτῷ μυηθέντες μετὰ τὴν τοῦ βίου τελευτὴν εὐδαιμονοῦσι, “τί οὖν, ὦ ἀνόητε,” εἶπεν, “οὐ τὴν ταχίστην ἀποθνῄσκεις, Fἵν᾿ ἅμα παύσῃ2 κακοδαιμονίαν καὶ πενίαν κλαίων;”

“When someone was asking why they did not dedicated the weapons of their enemies to the gods, he said that it would neither be right to show the youth or to dedicate to the gods weapons which were taken thanks to the cowardice of their owners.”

Πυθομένου δέ τινος διὰ τί τὰ ἀπὸ τῶν πολεμίων ὅπλα τοῖς θεοῖς οὐκ ἀνατιθέασιν, ἔφη ὅτι τὰ διὰ τὴν δειλίαν τῶν κεκτημένων θηραθέντα οὔτε τοὺς νέους ὁρᾶν καλὸν οὔτε τοῖς θεοῖς ἀνατιθέναι.

Some Sayings Attributed to Spartans in the Gnomologicum Vaticanum

69 “When Agesilaos was asked by someone why Sparta was unwalled he said “don’t lie. It is walled not by stones but by its occupants’ excellence.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ὑπό τινος, διὰ τί ἀτείχιστός ἐστιν ἡ Σπάρτη, „μὴ ψεύδου”, ἔφη, „τετείχισται γάρ, οὐ λίθοις, ἀλλὰ ταῖς τῶν <ἐνοικούντων ἀρεταῖς>”.

394 “When a Spartan man was asked why the Spartans have small spears he said “because they fight close to the enemy”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ ἐρωτώμενος διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι μικρὰ ἔχουσι τὰ ἐγχειρίδια εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἐγγύθεν τοῖς πολεμίοις μάχονται”.

396 “To someone asking why Spartans foster brevity of speech, a Spartan man said “because it is closest to silence”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ πρὸς τὸν εἰπόντα αὐτῷ· „διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι τὴν βραχυλογίαν ἀσκοῦσιν;” εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἔγγιστά ἐστι τοῦ σιωπᾶν”.

Spartan Sayings, 241f6

“Another spartan woman as she was passing her son his shield advised him, “child, [come home] either with this or on it.”

῎Αλλη προσαναδιδοῦσα τῷ παιδὶ τὴν ἀσπίδα καὶ παρακελευομένη ‘τέκνον’ ἔφη, ‘ἢ ταύταν ἢ ἐπὶ ταύτας.’

Sayings Attributed to Spartan Women, 568-576

“When a Spartan woman was speaking to her son who had been crippled in battle and was depressed because of that she said “don’t be sad, child—for each step recalls your private virtue”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει χωλωθέντος καὶ δυσφοροῦντος ἐπὶ τούτῳ „τέκνον”, εἶπε, „μὴ λυποῦ· καθ’ ἕκαστον γὰρ βῆμα τῆς ἰδίας <ἀρετῆς ὑπομνησθήσῃ.”>

“A Spartan woman said of her son who was thankful that he was the only one to survive a battle-line “why aren’t you ashamed that you’re the only one alive?”

Λάκαινα γυνὴ σεμνυνομένου τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐπὶ τῷ μόνον ἐκ τῆς παρατάξεως σεσῶσθαι ἔφη· „τί οὖν οὐκ αἰσχύνῃ μόνος ζῶν;”

“When a Spartan woman heard that her son died in the battle line she said “Child, you paid your country back well for your upbringing.”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα ἀκούσασα τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει τεθνηκέναι „τέκνον”, εἶπεν, „ὡς καλὰ τροφεῖα τῇ πατρίδι ἀπέδωκας!”

Valerius Maximas, 6.3 Ext 1

“Although it is possible to use the whole planet to offer examples of Roman cruelty, it is not useless to learn of foreign instances in summary. The Spartans ordered that the books of Archilochus were to be expelled from their state because they believed that they were insufficiently modest and were also shameful reading.

They did not want their children’s minds to be filled with these ideas in case they might harm their characters more than it sharpened their wits. For this reason they exiled the greatest or nearly greatest poet because he wounded a household he hated with vulgar curses.”

Ceterum etsi Romanae severitatis exemplis totus terrarum orbis instrui potest, tamen externa summatim cognosse fastidio non sit. Lacedaemonii libros Archilochi e civitate sua exportari iusserunt, quod eorum parum verecundam ac pudicam lectionem arbitrabantur: noluerunt enim ea liberorum suorum animos imbui, ne plus moribus noceret quam ingeniis prodesset. itaque maximum poetam aut certe summo proximum, quia domum sibi invisam obscenis maledictis laceraverat, carminum exsilio multarunt.

Spartans Sacrificed Puppies

Pausanias, 15.14 [In Laconia]

“On each of the bridges there is a sculpture: one has Herakles, the other an image of Lykourgos. Lykourgos established laws for the rest of the state and also for the fighting of youths. There are other things done by the Spartan youths too. They sacrifice in the temple to Apollo before battle. The Phoibaion is outside the city and not too far from Therapne. There, each group of young men sacrifice a puppy to Enyalios, because they believe that the bravest of the tame animals is a sacrifice to the liking of the bravest of the gods.

I don’t know any other Greeks who are in the habit of sacrificing puppies except for the Colophonians. They sacrifice a black female pup to the Goddess of the Wayside. This sacrifice and that of the Spartan youths are performed at night. During the sacrifice, the youths have trained boars fight one another. Whichever group’s boar wins, that group ends up winning the battle when they fight with strength in the Plane-tree Grove. These are the things they do in the Phobaion.”

γεφυρῶν δὲ ἐφ᾿ ἑκατέρᾳ τῇ μέν ἐστιν ἄγαλμα Ἡρακλέους, τῇ δὲ εἰκὼν Λυκούργου. νόμους δὲ ἔς τε τὴν ἄλλην πολιτείαν καὶ ἐς τὴν μάχην τῶν ἐφήβων ἔθηκεν ὁ Λυκοῦργος. καὶ τάδε ἄλλα τοῖς ἐφήβοις δρώμενά ἐστι· θύουσι πρὸ τῆς μάχης ἐν τῷ Φοιβαίῳ· τὸ δὲ Φοιβαῖόν ἐστιν ἐκτὸς τῆς πόλεως, Θεράπνης οὐ πολὺ ἀφεστηκός. ἐνταῦθα ἑκατέρα μοῖρα τῶν ἐφήβων σκύλακα κυνὸς τῷ Ἐνυαλίῳ θύουσι, θεῶν τῷ ἀλκιμωτάτῳ κρίνοντες ἱερεῖον κατὰ γνώμην εἶναι τὸ ἀλκιμώτατον ζῷον τῶν ἡμέρων. κυνὸς δὲ σκύλακας οὐδένας ἄλλους οἶδα Ἑλλήνων νομίζοντας θύειν ὅτι μὴ Κολοφωνίους· θύουσι γὰρ καὶ Κολοφώνιοι μέλαιναν τῇ Ἐνοδίῳ σκύλακα. νυκτεριναὶ δὲ ἥ τε Κολοφωνίων θυσία καὶ τῶν ἐν Λακεδαίμονι ἐφήβων καθεστήκασιν. ἐπὶ δὲ τῇ θυσίᾳ κάπρους ἠθάδας οἱ ἔφηβοι συμβάλλουσι μαχουμένους· ὁποτέρων δ᾿ ἂν ὁ κάπρος τύχῃ νικῶν, ἐν τῷ Πλατανιστᾷ κρατῆσαι τούτους ὡς τὰ πλείω συμβαίνει. τοσάδε μὲν δρῶσιν ἐν τῷ Φοιβαίῳ·

Image result for ancient Greek spartan shield

Spartans and Rape in the Conquered Territory. Another poorly named “erotic story” from Plutarch

Plutarch, Love Stories 3

“A poor man named Skadasos used to live in Leuktra (which is a village in the land of the Thespians). He had two daughters who were named Hippo and Milêtia or, as some say, Thenô and Euksippê. Skedasos was a good man and solicitous of strangers, even though he did not have much. When two Spartan youths came to him, he welcomed them happily. Although they were lusting after the maidens, they were hindered from bold action by the good character of the father. On the next day, they went to Delphi. The same road laid before them.

So, after they got an oracle from the god about which they were in need, they returned homeward again, traveling through Boiotia and returning to the home of Skedasos. But he did not happen to be in Leuktra at the time. Still, the daughters welcomed the strangers in the family’s usual manner. But when the youths found them alone, they raped the girls. When they noticed that the girls were taking the offense pretty badly, they killed them and rid themselves of the burden by throwing the bodies in a well.

When Skedasos returned and did not see his daughters, he discovered that everything else he left behind was safe. He was at a loss over the affair until a certain dog kept pawing at him and often ran up to him and from him back to the well. From this he figured it out, and he raised his daughters’ corpses up from the well. Once he learned from his neighbors that they had seen those Spartans on the previous day and returning again on the next one, he attributed the deed to them because they were constantly praising the girls on the earlier day and counting as blessed the men they would marry.

He went to Sparta in order to take his case to the Ephors. When he was near Argos, because night overtook him, he stayed in an inn. There was another old man in the same inn who was from the city of Oreus in the region of Hestiaia. After Skedasos heard him groaning and cursing the Spartans, he asked him what evil he had suffered at their hands. He explained that he was a Spartan subject and that after Aristodemos was sent to Oreus as a governor, he proved himself to be very cruel and lawless.

He explained, “He lusted after my son. When he couldn’t persuade him, he attempted to rape him and abduct him from the wrestling school. Because the teacher was preventing him and there were many young men helping, Aristodemos retreated out of necessity. But on the following day, he outfitted a trireme, kidnapped the boy and sailed to the opposite shore where he was trying to rape the boy. He killed him because he was fighting back. After returned, he threw a dinner party.” The old man continued, “Once I learned of what happened and took care of the body, I went to Sparta and met with the Ephors. But they showed this no concern.”

Hearing these things, Skedasos lost heart because he was imagining that the Spartans would ignore his case as well. But he did explain his own misfortune to the stranger in turn. The man was advising him not to meet with the Ephors but just to return to Boiotia and build a tomb for his daughters. Skedasos, nevertheless, was not persuaded, but he went to Sparta to meet with the Ephors. When they did not pay attention, he went to the kings and then went up and wept before each of the citizens. When he gained nothing else, he was rushing through the city raising his hands to the sun. Then he was striking his fists on the ground and calling on the Furies. Finally, he killed himself.”

Ἀνὴρ πένης Σκέδασος τοὔνομα κατῴκει Λεῦκτρα· ἔστι δὲ κώμιον τῆς τῶν Θεσπιέων χώρας. τούτῳ θυγατέρες γίνονται δύο· ἐκαλοῦντο δ᾿ Ἱππὼ καὶ Μιλητία, ἤ, ὥς τινες, Θεανὼ καὶ Εὐξίππη. ἦν δὲ χρηστὸς ὁ Σκέδασος καὶ τοῖς ξένοις ἐπιτήδειος, καίπερ οὐ πολλὰ κεκτημένος. ἀφικομένους οὖν πρὸς αὐτὸν δύο Σπαρτιάτας νεανίας ὑπεδέξατο προθύμως· οἱ δὲ τῶν παρθένων ἡττώμενοι διεκωλύοντο πρὸς τὴν τόλμαν ὑπὸ τῆς τοῦ κεδάσου χρηστότητος. τῇ δ᾿ ὑστεραίᾳ Πυθώδε ἀπῄεσαν· αὕτη γὰρ αὐτοῖς προύκειτο ἡ ὁδός· καὶ τῷ θεῷ χρησάμενοι περὶ ὧν ἐδέοντο, πάλιν ἐπανῄεσαν οἴκαδε, καὶ χωροῦντες διὰ τῆς Βοιωτίας ἐπέστησαν πάλιν τῇ τοῦ Σκεδάσου οἰκίᾳ. ὁ δ᾿ ἐτύγχανεν οὐκ ἐπιδημῶν τοῖς Λεύκτροις, ἀλλ᾿ αἱ θυγατέρες αὐτοῦ ὑπὸ τῆς συνήθους ἀγωγῆς τοὺς ξένους ὑπεδέξαντο. οἱ δὲ καταλαβόντες ἐρήμους τὰς κόρας βιάζονται· ὁρῶντες δ᾿ αὐτὰς καθ᾿ ὑπερβολὴν τῇ ὕβρει χαλεπαινούσας ἀπέκτειναν, καὶ ἐμβαλόντες ἔς τι φρέαρ ἀπηλλάγησαν. ἐπανελθὼν δ᾿ ὁ Σκέδασος τὰς μὲν κόρας οὐχ ἑώρα, πάντα δὲ τὰ καταλειφθέντα εὑρίσκει σῷα καὶ τῷ πράγματι ἠπόρει, ἕως τῆς κυνὸς κνυζωμένης καὶ πολλάκις μὲν προστρεχούσης πρὸς αὐτὸν ἀπὸ δ᾿ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ φρέαρ ἐπανιούσης, εἴκασεν ὅπερ ἦν, καὶ τῶν θυγατέρων τὰ νεκρὰ οὕτως ἀνιμήσατο. πυθόμενος δὲ παρὰ τῶν γειτόνων, ὅτι ἴδοιεν τῇ χθὲς ἡμέρᾳ τοὺς καὶ πρῴην καταχθέντας ἐπ᾿ αὐτοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους εἰσιόντας, συνεβάλετο τὴν πρᾶξιν ἐκείνων, ὅτι καὶ πρῴην συνεχῶς ἐπῄνουν τὰς κόρας, μακαρίζοντες τοὺς γαμήσοντας.

Ἀπῄει εἰς Λακεδαίμονα, τοῖς ἐφόροις ἐντευξόμενος· γενόμενος δ᾿ ἐν τῇ Ἀργολικῇ, νυκτὸς καταλαμβανούσης, εἰς πανδοκεῖόν τι κατήχθη· κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ δὲ καὶ πρεσβύτης τις ἕτερος τὸ γένος ἐξ Ὠρεοῦ πόλεως τῆς Ἑστιαιάτιδος· οὗ στενάξαντος καὶ κατὰ Λακεδαιμονίων ἀρὰς ποιουμένου ἀκούσας ὁ Σκέδασος ἐπυνθάνετο τί κακὸν ὑπὸ Λακεδαιμονίων πεπονθὼς εἴη. ὁ δὲ διηγεῖτο, ὡς ὑπήκοος μέν ἐστι τῆς Σπάρτης, πεμφθεὶς δ᾿ εἰς Ὠρεὸν Ἀριστόδημος ἁρμοστὴς παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίων ὠμότητα καὶ παρανομίαν ἐπιδείξαιτο πολλήν. “ἐρασθεὶς γάρ,” ἔφη, “τοῦ ἐμοῦ παιδός, ἐπειδὴ πείθειν ἀδύνατος ἦν, ἐπεχείρει βιάσασθαι καὶ ἀπάγειν αὐτὸν τῆς παλαίστρας· κωλύοντος δὲ τοῦ παιδοτρίβου καὶ νεανίσκων πολλῶν ἐκβοηθούντων, παραχρῆμα ὁ Ἀριστόδημος ἀπεχώρησε· τῇ δ᾿ ὑστεραίᾳ πληρώσας τριήρη συνήρπασε τὸ μειράκιον, καὶ ἐξ Ὠρεοῦ διαπλεύσας εἰς τὴν περαίαν ἐπεχείρει ὑβρίσαι, οὐ συγχωροῦντα δ᾿ αὐτὸν ἀπέσφαξεν.  ἐπανελθὼν δ᾿ εἰς τὴν Ὠρεὸν εὐωχεῖτο. ἐγὼ δ᾿,” ἔφη, “τὸ πραχθὲν πυθόμενος καὶ τὸ σῶμα κηδεύσας παρεγενόμην εἰς τὴν Σπάρτην καὶ τοῖς ἐφόροις ἐνετύγχανον· οἱ δὲ λόγον οὐκ ἐποιοῦντο.” Σκέδασος δὲ ταῦτα ἀκούων ἀθύμως διέκειτο, ὑπολαμβάνων ὅτι οὐδ᾿ αὐτοῦ λόγον τινὰ ποιήσονται οἱ Σπαρτιᾶται· ἐν μέρει τε τὴν οἰκείαν διηγήσατο συμφορὰν τῷ ξένῳ· ὁ δὲ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν μηδ᾿ ἐντυχεῖν τοῖς ἐφόροις, ἀλλ᾿ ὑποστρέψαντα εἰς τὴν Βοιωτίαν κτίσαι τῶν θυγατέρων τὸν τάφον. οὐκ ἐπείθετο δ᾿ ὅμως ὁ Σκέδασος, ἀλλ᾿ εἰς τὴν Σπάρτην ἀφικόμενος τοῖς ἐφόροις ἐντυγχάνει· ὧν μηδὲν προσεχόντων, ἐπὶ τοὺς βασιλέας ἵεται καὶ ἀπὸ τούτων ἑκάστῳ τῶν δημοτῶν προσιὼν ὠδύρετο. μηδὲν δὲ πλέον ἀνύων ἔθει διὰ μέσης τῆς πόλεως, ἀνατείνων πρὸς ἥλιον τὼ χεῖρε, αὖθις δὲ τὴν γῆν τύπτων ἀνεκαλεῖτο τὰς Ἐρινύας καὶ τέλος αὑτὸν τοῦ ζῆν μετέστησεν.

More from Plutarch

Plutarch, Moralia Sayings of Spartan Women 242c-d

“A certain girl who lost her virginity to a man in secret and forced an abortion of the fetus handled is so strongly and uttered no sound that she birthed the child without her father and those who were near her knowing. This is because the overcoming of her indiscretion with discretion prevailed over the magnitude of her pains.”

26. Κρύφα τις διαπαρθενευθεῖσα καὶ διαφθείρασα τὸ βρέφος οὕτως ἐνεκαρτέρησε μηδεμίαν προενεγκαμένη φωνήν, ὥστε καὶ τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἄλλους πλησίον ὄντας λαθεῖν ἀποκυήσασα· τὸ γὰρ μέγεθος τῶν ἀλγηδόνων τῇ εὐσχημοσύνῃ τὸ ἄσχημον προσπεσὸν ἐνίκησε.

“A Spartan woman who was being sold and was asked what she knows how to do, answered, “To be faithful.”

27. Λάκαινα πιπρασκομένη καὶ ἐρωτωμένη τί ἐπίσταται, ἔφη, “πιστὰ ἦμεν.”

“Another Spartan woman, when she was captured and asked a similar question, answered, “to keep a house well.”

28. Ἄλλη αἰχμαλωτευθεῖσα καὶ ἐρωτωμένη παραπλησίως, “εὖ οἰκεῖν οἶκον,” ἔφη.

“When a Spartan woman was asked by some man if she would be good if he he purchased her, answered, “I will. And if you don’t purchase me too”

29. Ἐρωτηθεῖσά τις ὑπό τινος, εἰ ἔσται ἀγαθή, ἂν αὐτὴν ἀγοράσῃ, εἶπε, “κἂν μὴ ἀγοράσῃς.”

“The Equal of Living Heroes”: Sparta’s Counterfeit Myth

Plutarch, Apophthegmata Lakonica 225 c11-12

“When Xerxes wrote again, “send me your weapons”, [Leonidas] wrote back, “Come and take them”

Πάλιν δὲ τοῦ Ξέρξου γράψαντος ‘πέμψον τὰ ὅπλα’, ἀντέγραψε ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’

The remarkable and tireless Dr. Sarah Bond has composed a piece for Eidolon  about the appropriation of Spartan iconography and values in the modern world (“This Is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance with Sparta is a Bad One”). If you live in Europe, the coasts in the US or some other blissful bubble, you may be unaware of the fact that the motto μολὼν λαβέ now adorns weapons and military gear of all kinds and is a favorite of certain right-wing political affiliations.

(When people hear I teach ancient Greek and tell me they love Sparta, I take the same deep breath I take when others ask about ‘Ancient Aliens’ or Atlantis. ‘Sparta’ is a production of modern culture as much as ancient. Every time I have taught the Peloponnesian War I found myself hoping it might turn out different this time…)

Dr. Bond does a great job out outlining the sordid modern history of the appropriation of Spartan ideals. But she is especially good at pointing out “A problematic area for valorizing the Spartans lies not only in quoting their famously short (and often witty) turns of phrase and turning them into bumper stickers, but rather in also looking to the Hellenistic culture as a socio-political model for our own society.

In addition to the eugenics, racism, and fascism at home on this constellation of beliefs, there is this: Sparta was a militarized state which enslaved its neighbors and produced little of worth for the world beyond a mythologized memory of a great fighting force.

When it comes to everything else for which we prize ancient Greece, Sparta was terribly and completely deficient. Tragedy, Epic poetry, lyric poetry, visual art, vases, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, science, history, rhetoric, everything Western cultural chauvinist champion about the ‘Greek miracle’* developed every where else in Greece.

Read Bond’s piece. It is a good one. Also, Neville Morely’s post on the use of Sparta by the far right is also a must-read.

And, here are some selections from Spartan ‘culture’.

*These are scare quotes. Even as a Hellenist I do not believe in this terminology. I find it ironic, however, that those who do still cleave to the example of Sparta which is, in many ways, antithetical to ‘core Western values’.

Sparta left some martial poetry. It is, well, uninspiring.

Tyrtaeus, Fr. 10.1-2

“It is a fine thing when a noble man falls
In the first ranks while struggling for his country.”

τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον·

Tytaeus, fr. 11.5-8

“Make your life hateful and make the dark fates
Of death as dear as the rays of the sun.
For you know the destructive deeds of much-wept Ares
And you have learned well the fury of fierce war.”

ἐχθρὴν μὲν ψυχὴν θέμενος, θανάτου δὲ μελαίνας
κῆρας αὐγαῖς ἠελίοιο φίλας.
ἴστε γὰρ ὡς ῎Αρεος πολυδακρύου ἔργ’ ἀΐδηλα,
εὖ δ’ ὀργὴν ἐδάητ’ ἀργαλέου πολέμου

Callinus 1. 12-21

“There’s no way for a man to avoid death once it is fated,
Not even if he is a descendant of the immortal gods.
Often when someone has fled strife and the din of spears
Death’s fate will find him at home.
The unsteady man isn’t dear to the people or longed for,
They grieve for him a little even if he suffers something great.
But the whole host misses a strong-hearted man when he dies
A man the equal of living heroes.
They look at him like a tower before their eyes_
He does work of many though he is just one.”

οὐ γάρ κως θάνατόν γε φυγεῖν εἱμαρμένον ἐστὶν
ἄνδρ’, οὐδ’ εἰ προγόνων ἦι γένος ἀθανάτων.
πολλάκι δηϊοτῆτα φυγὼν καὶ δοῦπον ἀκόντων
ἔρχεται, ἐν δ’ οἴκωι μοῖρα κίχεν θανάτου,
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἔμπης δήμωι φίλος οὐδὲ ποθεινός
τὸν δ’ ὀλίγος στενάχει καὶ μέγας ἤν τι πάθηι·
λαῶι γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς
θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ’ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·
ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·
ἔρδει γὰρ πολλὼν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.

The most famous epigram associated with Sparta was not composed by a Spartan:

Simonides, Epigram (Greek Anthology,7.249): An Epitaph at Thermopylae

“Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here
obedient to their commands.”

Ω ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις, ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Aelian, 13.19

“Cleomenes the Laconian asserted—in the manner of Spartans—that Homer was a Spartan poet because he spoke about the right way to go to war and that Hesiod was the Helot’s poet, since he talks about how best to farm.”

῎Ελεγεν ὁ Κλεομένης Λακωνικῶς κατὰ τὸν ἐπιχώριον τρόπον τὸν ῞Ομηρον Λακεδαιμονίων εἶναι ποιητήν, ὡς χρὴ πολεμεῖν λέγοντα· τὸν δὲ ῾Ησίοδον τῶν Εἱλώτων, λέγοντα ὡς χρὴ γεωργεῖν.

Some Sayings Attributed to Spartans in the Gnomologicum Vaticanum

69 “When Agesilaos was asked by someone why Sparta was unwalled he said “don’t lie. It is walled not by stones but by its occupants’ excellence.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ὑπό τινος, διὰ τί ἀτείχιστός ἐστιν ἡ Σπάρτη, „μὴ ψεύδου”, ἔφη, „τετείχισται γάρ, οὐ λίθοις, ἀλλὰ ταῖς τῶν <ἐνοικούντων ἀρεταῖς>”.

394 “When a Spartan man was asked why the Spartans have small spears he said “because they fight close to the enemy”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ ἐρωτώμενος διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι μικρὰ ἔχουσι τὰ ἐγχειρίδια εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἐγγύθεν τοῖς πολεμίοις μάχονται”.

396 “To someone asking why Spartans foster brevity of speech, a Spartan man said “because it is closest to silence”

Λάκων ἀνὴρ πρὸς τὸν εἰπόντα αὐτῷ· „διὰ τί οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι τὴν βραχυλογίαν ἀσκοῦσιν;” εἶπεν· „ὅτι ἔγγιστά ἐστι τοῦ σιωπᾶν”.

Sayings Attributed to Spartan Women, 568-576

“When a Spartan woman was speaking to her son who had been crippled in battle and was depressed because of that she said “don’t be sad, child—for each step recalls your private virtue”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει χωλωθέντος καὶ δυσφοροῦντος ἐπὶ τούτῳ „τέκνον”, εἶπε, „μὴ λυποῦ· καθ’ ἕκαστον γὰρ βῆμα τῆς ἰδίας <ἀρετῆς ὑπομνησθήσῃ.”>

“A Spartan woman said of her son who was thankful that he was the only one to survive a battle-line “why aren’t you ashamed that you’re the only one alive?”

Λάκαινα γυνὴ σεμνυνομένου τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς ἐπὶ τῷ μόνον ἐκ τῆς παρατάξεως σεσῶσθαι ἔφη· „τί οὖν οὐκ αἰσχύνῃ μόνος ζῶν;”

“When a Spartan woman heard that her son died in the battle line she said “Child, you paid your country back well for your upbringing.”

Γυνὴ Λάκαινα ἀκούσασα τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς ἐν παρατάξει τεθνηκέναι „τέκνον”, εἶπεν, „ὡς καλὰ τροφεῖα τῇ πατρίδι ἀπέδωκας!”

Image result for ancient Greek spartan shield

Telemachus is Not a Monster

The Odyssey is somewhat preoccupied with Telemachus’ paternity and the means by which it might be established. As mentioned in an earlier post, Aristotle suggests that children who are not like their father are monstrous. The Odyssey is also preoccupied with monstrous bodies–the giant Kikones, the deformed (morally and physically) Kyklopesthe transformed sailors, the mutilated bodies of servants–and the transformation of Odysseus’ body because of trauma at sea, age, and the needs of disguise. The threat of finding a monster at home might also be implied…

Athena signals Telemachus’ positive identity from the beginning. But the boy himself is uncertain! 

Homer, Odyssey 1.207-209

“…if in fact this great child is from the same Odysseus.
For you look terribly like that man in his beautiful eyes
and his head…”

εἰ δὴ ἐξ αὐτοῖο τόσος πάϊς εἰς ᾿Οδυσῆος.
αἰνῶς μὲν κεφαλήν τε καὶ ὄμματα καλὰ ἔοικας
κείνῳ, ἐπεὶ θαμὰ τοῖον ἐμισγόμεθ’ ἀλλήλοισι

Telemachus famously quibbles over the identification, wondering in classic moody adolescent fashion if any of this is true. Some of the scholia try to support him…

Od. 1.215-216

“My mother says that I am his, but I, well, I just
Don’t know. For no one ever witnesses his own origin…”

μήτηρ μέν τέ μέ φησι τοῦ ἔμμεναι, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε
οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.

Schol. EM ad Od. 1.215 ex

“No one knows his own origin..” and elsewhere [we find] “they claim that that man is my father” (Od.4.387.) Similarly, Euripides says “a mother is a more dear parent than a father / for she knows the child is hers but he only thinks it” and Menander says, “no one knows from what man he is born / but we all suspect or believe it.” And some claim that Telemachus says these things because he was left when he was small.”

οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον] καὶ ἀλλαχοῦ “τόνδε τ’ ἐμὸν πατέρα φάσ’ ἔμμεναι” (Od. δ, 387.). ὁμοίως Εὐριπίδης “μήτηρ φιλότεκνος μᾶλλον πατρός· ἡ μὲν γὰρ αὐτῆς οἶδεν ὄνθ’, ὁ δ’ οἴεται.” καὶ Μένανδρος “αὑτὸν γὰρ οὐδεὶς οἶδε τοῦ ποτ’ ἐγένετο, ἀλλ’ ὑπονοοῦμεν πάντες ἢ πιστεύομεν.” τινὲς δὲ ταῦτα τὸν Τηλέμαχόν φασι λέγειν ἐπεὶ μικρὸς καταλέλειπται. E.M.

Later in the Odyssey, Nestor likens son to father (implicitly).

Od. 3.121-125

“..when shining Odysseus father was preeminent in all kinds of tricks, your father,   if truly you are his son. And wonder overtakes me as I look at you
For your speeches, at least, are really fine—no one would expect
A younger man to utter such suitable things.”

…ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὸν ἐνίκα δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
παντοίοισι δόλοισι, πατὴρ τεός, εἰ ἐτεόν γε
κείνου ἔκγονός ἐσσι· σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωντα.
ἦ τοι γὰρ μῦθοί γε ἐοικότες, οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἄνδρα νεώτερον ὧδε ἐοικότα μυθήσασθαι.

In Sparta, Helen notes that Telemachus looks like, well, Telemachus even though she has never seen him! Menelaos agrees. The scholia get a little frustrated.

Od. 4.138-146

“For I do not think that anyone looks so suitable,
Neither a man nor a woman, and wonder overtakes me as I look at him,
How this one looks like the son of great-hearted Odysseus,
Telemachus, the one that man left just born in his household
When the Achaeans left for the sake of dog-faced me
And went to Troy, raising their bold war.”

οὐ γάρ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
οὔτ’ ἄνδρ’ οὔτε γυναῖκα, σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωσαν,
ὡς ὅδ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆος μεγαλήτορος υἷι ἔοικε,
Τηλεμάχῳ, τὸν ἔλειπε νέον γεγαῶτ’ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
κεῖνος ἀνήρ, ὅτ’ ἐμεῖο κυνώπιδος εἵνεκ’ ᾿Αχαιοὶ
ἤλθεθ’ ὑπὸ Τροίην, πόλεμον θρασὺν ὁρμαίνοντες.”

Schol. E. ad Od. 4.143

“She says these things even though she has not seen Telemachus but based instead on the character of Odysseus.”

οὐ Τηλέμαχον εἰδυῖα ταῦτα λέγει, ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ χαρακτῆρος τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως. E.

Schol. Q ad. Od. 4.143

“She compares him to his father even though she has never seen Odysseus’ child.”

ἐξομοιοῖ δὲ αὐτὸν τῷ πατρὶ οὐχ ἑωρακυῖά ποτε ᾿Οδυσσέως παῖδα. Q.

Od. 4.147-150

“Fair Menelaos spoke to her and answered:
‘I was just thinking the same thing, wife, which you imagined.
For these are the same kind of feet and hands,
The look of the eyes and the hair on the head as that man.”

τὴν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη ξανθὸς Μενέλαος·
“οὕτω νῦν καὶ ἐγὼ νοέω, γύναι, ὡς σὺ ἐΐσκεις·
κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες τοιαίδε τε χεῖρες
ὀφθαλμῶν τε βολαὶ κεφαλή τ’ ἐφύπερθέ τε χαῖται.

Schol H. ad Od. 4.149 ex 1-4

“These sort of feet are that man’s”: For likeness in bodies especially shows through in the extremities and the gaze. And however so much grows more slowly, that much provides more precise signs of recognition over time. This is why it is said “From feet to the head.”

κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες] ἐκ γὰρ τῶν ἄκρων καὶ τῆς ὄψεως μάλιστα αἱ ὁμοιότητες τῶν σωμάτων ἐμφαίνονται. ὅσον δὲ βράδιον ἐστοχάσατο, τοσοῦτον ἀκριβέστερον ἀπεφήνατο τὸν μεταξὺ χρόνον δηλονότι κατανοῶν. τὸ δὲ λεγόμενον, ἐκ ποδῶν εἰς κεφαλήν. H.

The threat of children not looking like fathers is central to the fall of the race of iron. But it is couched within a general social collapse. In this case, ancient scholia turn to the abstract issue. In this case, a child dissimilar to parents would be a monstrum, but in the sense of an omen or a sign of a fallen generation. From this perspective the tension latent in Telemachus’ potential dissimilarity to his father is about stability of the last generation of epic heroes. The bastard sons of Odysseus and potential infidelity of Penelope signal, perhaps, the end of the race of heroes and a premature end to heroic epic.

Hesiod, Works and Days 180–185

“Zeus will destroy this race of mortal humans
Or they will perish when they are born with temples already grey.
Then a father will not be like his children, nor children at all like parents;
A guest will not be dear to a host, a friend not to a friend
And a relative will not be dear as in years before.”

Ζεὺς δ’ ὀλέσει καὶ τοῦτο γένος μερόπων ἀνθρώπων,
εὖτ’ ἂν γεινόμενοι πολιοκρόταφοι τελέθωσιν.
οὐδὲ πατὴρ παίδεσσιν ὁμοίιος οὐδέ τι παῖδες
οὐδὲ ξεῖνος ξεινοδόκῳ καὶ ἑταῖρος ἑταίρῳ,
οὐδὲ κασίγνητος φίλος ἔσσεται, ὡς τὸ πάρος περ.
αἶψα δὲ γηράσκοντας ἀτιμήσουσι τοκῆας·

Schol. ad. Hes. Th. 182b-d ex.

b. “Similar to…” likeness, similarity, a shared voice or similarity in mind or in shape, [lost here] because of the multitude of wickedness and adulteries…”

b. ὁμοίιος: ὁμονοητικός, σύμφωνος ἢ ὅμοιος τῇ γνώμῃ ἢ τῇ ἰδέᾳ, διὰ τὸ τῶν κακιῶν πλῆθος καὶ τῶν μοιχειῶν…

“similar to”: the similarity is clearly the commonness, the conversation, and the affection. For affection (philia) develops from similarity. Altogether this expresses tragically the oncoming evils in life following this, the distrust between children and fathers, between guests and hosts, and among friends. Friendship is the third thing mentioned. Also: cognate, companionable, hospitable.”

c.ὁμοίιος: τὸ μὲν ὁμοίιος δηλοῖ τὸ κοινωνικὸν καὶ προσήγορον καὶ φίλιον· φιλία γὰρ
δι’ ὁμοιότητος ἐπιτελεῖται. πάντα δὲ ἐκτραγῳδεῖ τὰ ἐπεισελθόντα κακὰ τῷ βίῳ μετ’ αὐτόν, τὴν ἀπιστίαν τῶν παίδων καὶ πατέρων, τὴν τῶν ξένων καὶ ξενοδόχων, τὴν τῶν ἑταίρων πρὸς ἀλλήλους. τριττὴ γὰρ ἡ φιλία· συγγενική,
ἑταιρική, ξενική.

d. “Similar to”: Similarity of men, having one desire or, he means, through mixing it up with other women, the bastard sons too.”

d.<ὁμοίιος:> ὁμογνώμων, μίαν θέλησιν ἔχων ἢ διὰ τὰς ἀλληλομιξίας λέγων τῶν γυναικῶν καὶ τοὺς νόθους υἱούς.

Later, Aristotle channels some of the same cultural assumptions from a scientific perspective. Here the monstrum (greek teras) is an indication of deformity.

Aristotle, Generation of Animals, Book 4, 767b

“These causes are also of the same. Some [offspring] are born similar to their parents while others are not. Some are similar to their father; others are like their mother, applying both to the body as a whole and to each part. Offspring are more like their parents than their ancestors and more like their ancestors than passersby.

Males are more similar to their father and females are more similar to their mother. But some are not like any of their relatives, but are still akin to human beings while others are like not at all like humans in their appearance, but rather like some monster. For whoever is not like his parents is in some way a monster because nature has in these cases wandered in some way from the essential character.”

Αἱ δ᾿ αὐταὶ αἰτίαι καὶ τοῦ τὰ μὲν ἐοικότα γίνεσθαι τοῖς τεκνώσασι τὰ δὲ μὴ ἐοικότα, καὶ τὰ μὲν πατρὶ τὰ δὲ μητρί, κατά τε ὅλον τὸ σῶμα καὶ κατὰ μόριον ἕκαστον, καὶ μᾶλλον αὐτοῖς ἢ τοῖς προγόνοις, καὶ τούτοις ἢ τοῖς τυχοῦσι, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἄρρενα μᾶλλον τῷ πατρὶ τὰ δὲ θήλεα τῇ μητρί, τὰ δ᾿ οὐδενὶ τῶν συγγενῶν, ὅμως δ᾿ ἀνθρώπῳ γέ τινι, τὰ δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἀνθρώπῳ τὴν ἰδέαν ἀλλ᾿ ἤδη τέρατι. καὶ γὰρ ὁ μὴ ἐοικὼς τοῖς γονεῦσιν ἤδη τρόπον τινὰ τέρας ἐστίν· παρεκβέβηκε γὰρ ἡ φύσις ἐν τούτοις ἐκ τοῦ γένους τρόπον τινά.

Image result for Ancient Greek Telemachus
“Look how big and beautiful I am.” Mid-4th century BC. Berlin, Staatliche Museen

A Disturbing (?) Passage from Modern Scholarship on Ancient Sexuality

I have been weighing the sense and import of the pages below for a few weeks now. Typically, I don’t teach too much about sexuality and I research it even less as a Homerist. I suspect that this is partly disciplinary (Homer is happy to indicate the power and fact of sexual acts with little specification; this is largely a generic characteristic) but part is nurture: my parents were both Lutherans of mid-Western Scandinavian persuasion: sex is fine, as long as no one talks about it.

But I do mention misogyny quite a bit in classes and on the blog and I have long been worried about the ways in which an uncritical presentation of the material in Homer and myth merely recapitulates and strengthens structural biases about gender and power. When it comes to human sexuality, I get a little squeamish with posts on this site: I like to post material that surprises people with the dirtiness of the Ancient world (you know, farting, shitting, middle fingers) and which disabuses people of the notion that what we have from the Ancient Greek and Romans is largely philosophy and Galen. But in a time when people misuse the ancient world for many things–most execrably to support racists and white supremacist views erroneously--I do fear that some postings might appear exploitative or be misused in some way.

This is one reason, for example although I put up a post about masturbation in ancient Greek, I did not follow it up, as requested with one about female masturbation. For one, there is only a small amount of evidence (and the evidence is extremely problematic because it comes from men and is mostly negative). For another, I don’t think there is any way for a male author to post information about female masturbation online without seeming in some way salacious, creepy, or just, well, gross.

(Again, this is where both my nature and my nurture may be causing me problems. Oh, and this: not talking about female masturbation reinforces taboos about female sexuality and agency.)

Another area in which we have posted very little is on topics that pertain to homosexuality, same-sex acts, or non-heteronormative (in a modern sense) eroticism. People respond all too well to lists of words for feces, but descriptions of sexuality that fall under the earlier categories get some strange responses. This is not enough to stop us alone. My worry is akin to my concern in the last paragraph, but more. I fear that some readers will use such material negatively (doing harm to ancient and modern communities); I also feel we run the risk of getting cheap entertainment through the exploitative expropriation of someone else’s sexuality.

But I have been struggling with the line of thought in the passage I am about to cite. The work of the book The Maculate Muse is really groundbreaking (and it is a work to which I have referred for many years), but the comments on comparing modern and ancient ‘homosexuality’ seem skewed in a damaging way. I am posting them not with the intention of shaming the scholar, but instead with the hope that someone will tell me I have read this all wrong.

J. Henderson. The Maculate Muse, 1991 (2nd edition; first 1975): 207

Henderson page 207

The Maculate Muse, 1991: 208

Henderson page 208

I am troubled by a few things here. The bit about “perversion” and “not without reason” seems particularly problematic, especially since it is unexplained. The additional language of compulsion is also borderline for me. Although the second edition is now nearly 30 years old (and the original is closer to 50!), I would have thought that it would be more sensitive in its treatment of sexual categories and notions of sexual activity, sexual identity, gender and sex.

My suspicions about this passage and its implicit definitions of sexuality (and identities) have led me to read a lot of what Henderson says about “pathics”, effeminacy, and the insults which may or may not pertain to these categories with much greater caution.

Update: an important note of context. The comments cited above were not updated from the 1975 edition of the book. The following note precedes the discussion.

A scholar familiar with the development of this book from dissertation to publication and revision was kind enough to share some context. It was dangerous for a career to write this book in the 1970s. Classics has not always been in the social and cultural vanguard.

So, this passage can serve particularly well as a lesson for how our scholarship is shaped by cultural constrainta both in its articulation and ita reception over time.

Myths of Marathons: Herodotus, Lucian, Plutarch and Us

If one were inspired to ‘research’ the origin of our modern Marathon on the Internet, one might find it possible to escape the story that it comes from Pheidippides’ run to Athens after the battle against the Persians in 490 BCE. As the story goes, as he arrived before the assembled citizens, Pheidippides announced “we have conquered” (nenikêkamen) and then then expired.

The problem is that this story is total hogwash. There was no Pheidippides (except in Aristophanes, and he was obsessed with horses). No one is ever recorded saying in ancient Greek “we have conquered” after the battle. I know where some of this comes from (Plutarch and Lucian, see below) but I don’t know where the rest does. Altough some authors do have a messenger announcing the victory, the present form of nikâo is used. And the name changes.

Furthermore, the message of the story changes radically from its different context. In the first account of running and Marathon, Herodotus tells of an Athenian Philippides who ran 140 miles to Sparta and back to try to get help:

Herodotus, 6.105-6

“First, the generals who were still in the city sent the herald Philippidês[1] to Sparta, an Athenian man, a long-distance runner [hêmerodromên[2]] who made a career of it. Pan appeared to him—as Philippidês claimed and reported to the Athenians—around the Parthenian mountain past Tegea. He claimed that Pan shouted out the name of Philippidês and ordered him to ask the Athenians why they were paying him no attention even though he was well-disposed toward them and was often helpful to them and would be again in the future. And because they believed these things to be true, since their affairs were going well, they established a temple to Pan on the akropolis and they honor him for that message with annual sacrifices and a race by torchlight. 

When Philipiddes was sent by the generals, that time when he said that Pan appeared to him, he arrived in Sparta on the next day.[3] He went straight to the officials and said “Spartans, the Athenians need you to help them and not tolerate that one of the oldest cities among the Greeks fall into slavery at the hands of Barbarian. Eretria has already been enslaved and Greece has become weaker by the loss of a significant city.” He announced what he had been ordered to announce and it was to their taste to help the Athenians but they were incapable of doing so immediately because they did not want to violate the custom: for it was the ninth day of the current month, and they said that on that day they could not leave until the moon was full.”

Καὶ πρῶτα μὲν ἐόντες ἔτι ἐν τῷ ἄστεϊ οἱ στρατηγοὶ ἀποπέμπουσι ἐς Σπάρτην κήρυκα Φιλιππίδην, ᾿Αθηναῖον μὲν ἄνδρα, ἄλλως δὲ ἡμεροδρόμην τε καὶ τοῦτο μελετῶντα. Τῷ δή, ὡς αὐτός τε ἔλεγε Φιλιππίδης καὶ ᾿Αθηναίοισι ἀπήγγελλε, περὶ τὸ Παρθένιον ὄρος τὸ ὑπὲρ Τεγέης ὁ Πὰν περιπίπτει· βώσαντα δὲ τὸ οὔνομα τοῦ Φιλιππίδεω τὸν Πᾶνα ᾿Αθηναίοισι κελεῦσαι ἀπαγγεῖλαι δι’ ὅ τι ἑωυτοῦ οὐδεμίαν ἐπιμελείην ποιεῦνται, ἐόντος εὐνόου ᾿Αθηναίοισι καὶ πολλαχῇ γενομένου σφι ἤδη χρησίμου, τὰ δ’ ἔτι καὶ ἐσομένου. Καὶ ταῦτα μὲν ᾿Αθηναῖοι, καταστάντων σφι εὖ ἤδη τῶν πρηγμάτων, πιστεύσαντες εἶναι ἀληθέα ἱδρύσαντο ὑπὸ τῇ ᾿Ακροπόλι Πανὸς ἱρόν, καὶ αὐτὸν ἀπὸ ταύτης τῆς ἀγγελίης θυσίῃσί τε ἐπετείοισι καὶ λαμπάδι ἱλάσκονται. Τότε δὲ πεμφθεὶς ὑπὸ τῶν στρατηγῶν ὁ Φιλιππίδης οὗτος, ὅτε πέρ οἱ ἔφη καὶ τὸν Πᾶνα φανῆναι, δευτεραῖος ἐκ τοῦ ᾿Αθηναίων ἄστεος ἦν ἐν Σπάρτῃ, ἀπικόμενος δὲ ἐπὶ τοὺς ἄρχοντας ἔλεγε· «῏Ω Λακεδαιμόνιοι, ᾿Αθηναῖοι ὑμέων δέονται σφίσι βοηθῆσαι καὶ μὴ περιιδεῖν πόλιν ἀρχαιοτάτην ἐν τοῖσι ῞Ελλησι δουλοσύνῃ περιπεσοῦσαν πρὸς ἀνδρῶν βαρβάρων· καὶ γὰρ νῦν ᾿Ερέτριά τε ἠνδραπόδισται καὶ πόλι λογίμῳ ἡ ῾Ελλὰς γέγονε ἀσθενεστέρη.» ῾Ο μὲν δή σφι τὰ ἐντεταλμένα ἀπήγγελλε, τοῖσι δὲ ἕαδε μὲν βοηθέειν ᾿Αθηναίοισι, ἀδύνατα δέ σφι ἦν τὸ παραυτίκα ποιέειν ταῦτα οὐ βουλομένοισι λύειν τὸν νόμον· ἦν γὰρ ἱσταμένου τοῦ μηνὸς εἰνάτη, εἰνάτῃ δὲ οὐκ ἐξελεύσεσθαι ἔφασαν μὴ οὐ πλήρεος ἐόντος τοῦ κύκλου.

This story is all about the Spartan failure to help the Greeks and the origin of a certain shrine to Pan. (In fact, in most authors who even mention this tale, it is the later aspect that draws attention). There is running from Marathon to Athens. But in Herodotus’ story, the entire Athenian army goes on a fast-march from the battle to defend the city against the Persian fleet:

Herodotus, 116

“The Persians sailed around Cape Sounion, but the Athenians went to help the city as fast as their feet were able; they arrived before the barbarians did and made their camp as soon as they appeared in the temple of Herakles, the one in Kynosarges. The barbarians, who had been at anchor near the Athenian port at that time, Phaleron, retreated and sailed their ships back toward Asia.”

Οὗτοι μὲν δὴ περιέπλεον Σούνιον· ᾿Αθηναῖοι δὲ ὡς ποδῶν εἶχον τάχιστα ἐβοήθεον ἐς τὸ ἄστυ, καὶ ἔφθησάν τε ἀπικόμενοι πρὶν ἢ τοὺς βαρβάρους ἥκειν, καὶ ἐστρατοπεδεύσαντο ἀπιγμένοι ἐξ ῾Ηρακλείου τοῦ ἐν Μαραθῶνι ἐν ἄλλῳ ῾Ηρακλείῳ τῷ ἐν Κυνοσάργεϊ. Οἱ δὲ βάρβαροι τῇσι νηυσὶ ὑπεραιωρηθέντες Φαλήρου (τοῦτο γὰρ ἦν ἐπίνειον τότε τῶν ᾿Αθηναίων), ὑπὲρ τούτου ἀνακωχεύσαντες τὰς νέας ἀπέπλεον ὀπίσω ἐς τὴν ᾿Ασίην.

This tale is actually more impressive and meaningful than the apocryphal one. The entire army ran the distance of 26 or so miles as a group to defend their homes. This isn’t about individual sacrifice or excellence, but rather about the collective will and glory of a city ruled by the people and for the people (to wax poetic a bit). This is, I think, a much more interesting and inspiring tale if it is taken seriously.

But sometime between the Peloponnesian War (421-404 BCE) and the Early Roman Empire (1st Century CE), the story changes. It takes on some of the elements of the false tale circulated widely. The two most well-known accounts are from Plutarch and Lucian. Plutarch, in typical style, distances himself from the tale by saying that one guy alleges that another guy says that…:

Plutarch, On the Glory of Athens, 347c (2nd Century CE)

“Heracleidês of Pontikos writes that Thersippos the Erkhian reported back about the battle of Marathon; but most say that it was Eukles who ran hot from battle in his arms and who, just after entering the gates could say only “Greetings” and “we are rejoicing” and then die.”

τὴν τοίνυν ἐν Μαραθῶνι μάχην ἀπήγγειλεν, ὡς μὲν ῾Ηρακλείδης ὁ Ποντικὸς (fr. 81) ἱστορεῖ, Θέρσιππος ὁ ᾿Ερχιεύς· οἱ δὲ πλεῖστοι λέγουσιν Εὐκλέα δραμόντα σὺν τοῖς ὅπλοις θερμὸν ἀπὸ τῆς μάχης καὶ ταῖς θύραις ἐμπεσόντα τῶν πρώτων τοσοῦτον μόνον εἰπεῖν ‘χαίρετε’ καὶ ‘χαίρομεν,’ εἶτ’ εὐθὺς ἐκπνεῦσαι.

In Plutarch’s tale, the name of the runner is Eucles and he says χαίρομεν instead of anything about victory before dying. The full kernel of our modern canard can be found in the work of Lucian, a well-known fabulist.

Lucian, On Mistakes in Greetings (2nd Century CE)

“First, Philippidês the day-runner is said to have run from Marathon reporting the victory to the archons who were seated and awaiting news about the end of the battle, saying “Rejoice, we are victorious” and after saying that he died with the news, expiring with his greeting.”

Πρῶτος δ’ αὐτὸ Φιλιππίδης ὁ ἡμεροδρομήσας λέγεται ἀπὸ Μαραθῶνος ἀγγέλλων τὴν νίκην εἰπεῖν πρὸς τοὺς ἄρχοντας καθημένους καὶ πεφροντικότας ὑπὲρ τοῦ τέλους τῆς μάχης, Χαίρετε, νικῶμεν, καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν συναποθανεῖν τῇ ἀγγελίᾳ καὶ τῷ χαίρειν συνεκπνεῦσαι.

What are we to make of this story? The Byzantine Suda has no patience for either Plutarch or Lucian. This encyclopedia, whose authors certainly knew of both, provides an account drawn entirely from Herodotus:

Suda (Byzantine Encyclopedia)

“Philippidês, an Athenian; day-runner: he ran 15 thousand stades in a single night and day (140 miles) as he traveled to Sparta. But the law did not allow them to go to war before the full-moon.”

Φιλιππίδης, ᾿Αθηναῖος, ἡμεροδρόμος· ὃς χίλια πεντακόσια στάδια ἤνυσε διὰ μιᾶς νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας, πρὸς Λακεδαιμονίους ἀφικόμενος. ὁ δὲ νόμος οὐκ εἴα στρατεύειν αὐτοὺς πρὸ πανσελήνου.

What does it say about our culture and that of the second sophistic (the period of Plutarch and Lucian) that the individual tale is so much more attractive or that the Herodotean account is so quickly discounted? I bring this up for a few reasons. First, I always have students who think they know things question the Herodotean account. And, insanely or not, I am running a Marathon this weekend.

I know that the founding legends of modern sporting events often have little to do with truth, but I wonder about the individualistic and extreme versions popularized to the detriment of other possible stories. By Herodotus’ account, Philippides was a professional runner who could cover 140 miles in two days. Isn’t that impressive enough? By his account, we should memorialize the extraordinary battle of Marathon through collective acts of sacrifice. (Which happens to an extent, but modern amateur Marathon culture is not exactly altruistic and noble).

But it is probably the pedant in me who protests at the faked Greek online, the complaining students, and the favoring of something newer (you know, recent like Lucian) over something truly old.

Whatever the reason, I will probably be cursing the names Eukles, Pheidippides, Philippides and Lucian on Sunday morning.


Some Notes:

[1] How and Wells’s commentary on 6.105.1 “Φιλιππίδης, though only found in the second family of MSS., is supported by the other authorities (Paus. i. 28. 4, viii. 54-6; Plut. Herod. Malign. 26, &c.), and almost certainly right. It is a common Athenian name (C. I. A.), whereas Pheidippides is a witticism of Aristophanes (Nub. 67), which he would hardly have dared to make had the name been consecrated in the tale of Marathon.”

[2] Literally: “day-runner”

[3] How and Wells: “According to Isocrates the distance traversed was 150 miles.”

Don’t Hurt A Lady Like Diomedes Did (Ovid, Amores 1.7, 31-34)

“The son of Tydeus left the worst example of crimes—
He struck a goddess first—but I did it second!
And he was less to blame: The one I profess to love
I hurt; Tydeus’ son was a beast with an enemy.”

pessima Tydides scelerum monimenta reliquit.
ille deam primus perculit—alter ego!
et minus ille nocens. mihi, quam profitebar amare
laesa est; Tydides saevus in hoste fuit.

In this poem, Ovid starts out by asking to be handcuffed because he struck his girlfriend. He compares himself to insane Ajax or Orestes, before spending some time speaking of Diomedes. Of course, a lot of this ‘play’ is just part of the self-mockery and generic-gaming of the Amores where our poet starts out by mentioned the “arms and violent wars” he was preparing (arma gravi numero violentaque bella parabam, 1.1.); but from a modern perspective, the conceit of writing a poem about the temporary “madness” that made one strike a lover, seems a bit less than funny. Indeed, it seems, well, primitive and, as Ovid puts it, saevus.

And, though Ovid at first appears to make light of Diomedes’ wounding of Aphrodite in the Iliad (book 5), he certainly knew (as evidenced by the Metamorphoses 14.460-510) that Diomedes’ act had some grave consequences. According to some authors, Diomedes came home to find his wife Aigialea shacked up with his own relative Kometes. He must shelter in the temple of Athena and then flee his own land. According to some accounts, he makes it to Italy where he marries the daughter of Daunos and gets a kingdom. According to others, he is killed on a hunting expedition, either on purpose, or by accident.

So, perhaps wounding Aphrodite was a mistake to begin with…but I do wonder how much Ovid wants us to think about this when singing of Diomedes.