Sunday, 24 August 2008

Run for your life, the Spartans are coming!


The image of the long-haired, armed and cloaked Spartan warrior was meant to evoke a sense of terror and induce severe abdominal cramping in all enemies of Sparta, the harshest and most fearsome city state in the ancient Greek world.  Yet, despite this bloodcurdling reputation Herodotus tells us that when the Persian king Cyrus was visited by a delegation of rough-looking, long-haired, sun-baked men clad in red cloaks and with no desire for small-talk, and was duly warned to leave the Ionian cities alone or he would have to deal with them, the Spartans, the king allegedly turned to one of his advisors and asked "Who are the Spartans?"  Suffice to say no Greek would have asked this question.

Based in the fertile plain of Laconia, with the banks of the river Eurotas on the east, in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece, Sparta was well positioned for further development and expansion.  In the latter 8th century BC neighboring Messinia was annexed and its entire population enslaved (the Helots, i.e. slaves of Sparta).  This action transformed Sparta into a major Greek city state.  In the following centuries Sparta further consolidated its power in the Peloponnese while simultaneously developing what we would nowadays call an oppressive and heavily militaristic social system.  This served the state well.  Only a few thousand men were allowed to have citizenship.  These citizens (also the state's landowners), barred from engaging in the 'joys' of agricultural labour and any form of business activity, would serve full time as hoplites (heavy infantry) in the army.  While citizens dedicated their lives to the military helots, would toil away on the estates of citizens in order for food and other such necessities to be produced.  The government constisted of two kings, the ephors (5 civil magistrates elected annually by the citizens for a one-year term of office) who to a certain level were able to influence and/or control the activities of the two kings, and the gerousia a formidable council of elders.  Every Spartan male, (except for the two kings and their immediate heirs) from the age of 7 to 29 was subjected to a regime of public upbringing called agoge, which was basicaly military training combined with an extremely austere lifestyle, which entailed perpetual physical and psychological hardships of all kinds and demanded absolute obedience  (thus today we use the phrase 'a spartan lifestyle').  At age 12 the budding citizen could expect to be paired off with a young adult who would act as their patron and guide.  The relationship was also sexual on many occasions and this was seen as the done thing.  (The ancient world did not really classify people and especially men as being either heterosexual or homosexual, but adopted more of a bisexual view, ie. that sexual urges and needs were to be satisfied with both sexes).  During their years of training the young men would be routinely striped and paraded in front of young Spartan girls who would either praise them for their physical attributes of mock them as it was said a Spartan had nothing to hide (we do not know if penile size was on the agenda or not but we can assume physical fitness was a focal point).  Aged 29 the young man would graduate the agoge and if he was one of the most promising students was promptly sent off into the mountains with other such young men thus forming a group called the Crypteia.  The chosen graduates, dressed in a light tunic and armed only with a small dagger each, had one instruction to obey:  kill a hated helot in Messenia and prove themselves as killers.  These were the future leaders of Sparta and it was felt that no man was fit to lead unless able to kill on command.  

At the age of 30 the Spartan citizen was finally considered a man and able to control his own finances and stand for office.  Still, as a hoplite he was obliged to live in the army barracks and not with his family (he would visit wife during the pre-scheduled conjugal meetings whose primary purpose was the production of more Spartans).

Spartan women were also very tough and brought up to serve the state by keeping fit and healthy so as to give birth to the next generation of Spartan warriors and mothers.  They were in every sense of the word, baby factories.  However, the Spartan woman was also raised to be domineering, assertive and non-emotional while serving the state.  To the amusement of other Greeks who felt women ought to be modest, shut away in the back of the house, not seen and not heard, the Spartan women were infused with fanatic patriotic pride, taught to read and write and speak their mind with characteristic bluntness.  They also exercised in public, taking part in various sports, even wrestling.  They would do this dressed in a short tunic with a slit up the thighs or even naked.  All this was done so that as future mothers they could instruct their offspring on what it means to be a Spartan.  The famous phrase Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (I tan i epi tas = Either with your shield or on it) was the command Spartan mothers were said to give to their sons as they departed for battle.  Her son in other words was to either come back from battle as a hero with his shield or die and be carried back home on his shield (a hoplite could not escape the battlefield unless he let go of his heavy, cumbersome shield, thus losing one's shield meant desertion).  The Spartan bride had a shaven head and a no-nonsense attitude to go with it.  If she produced three sons for the state, as a bonus her husband would be excused from garrison duty.  Alternatively, if she died in childbirth she could look forward to being celebrated as having died for the state as her name would be specially carved on a tombstone for all to see and she would be remembered for eternity.  

King Cyrus must have been indeed surprised and even intrigued or shocked when he was given his briefing on who the Spartans were....

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Clodius of the People: The Patrician Leader of the Plebs




Publius Clodius Pulcher, born 92BC, was the youngest of six children, son of Appius Claudius Pulcher, brother of the notoriously unprincipled Appius Claudius Pulcher and member of Rome's most influential and powerful patrician (aristocratic) family, the Claudii, renowned for their arrogance and outrageous behavior.  He is chiefly remembered for trespassing during the Bona Dea festival, disguised as a woman (a women's only event) in Julius Caesar's house (allegedly to have a fling with Pompeia, Caesar's wife at the time) and vilified by most historians who characterize him as a mobster, demagogue and violent opportunist.  To add insult to injury, he was pursued throughout his life by rumours of of incest with his sister Clodia, a lively and intelligent woman who enjoyed courting controversy and entertaining Rome's demimonde.  

In 59BC, at the age of 32 and in the midst of a most promising political career, he chose to give up his patrician rank and join the plebs via adoption into a plebeian family.  This would mean giving up all privileges of the patrician class and become one of the "common" citizens of Rome.  His request was granted by Julius Caesar and the following year Clodius (who had changed the aristocratic spelling of his family name 'Claudius' to the plebeian spelling) was elected tribune of the plebs by an overwhelming majority.  Once in office, Clodius immediately set on implementing a number of reforms for the benefit of the people, the most well known of which are the free corn dole, the restoration of the collegia (Roman clubs:  something between a guild and the modern trade union) which both free citizens and slaves could join and whose members became heavily involved in elections and political issues at the time , (the collegia had been banned by the Senate six years previously).  Clodius also intoduced a bill making it illegal to condem a Roman citizen  to death without a trial and also attempted to introduce voting rights for poor men and slaves.  We can imagine how unpopular these measures would have been to the Roman senatorial elite who were prepared to viciously defend their status and way of life.

Cicero and Cato, well-known optimates (conservatives) were of course great enemies of his and there was a bitter feud between the former and Clodius.  It is not surprising therefore that one of the first things Clodius did  when he rose to power was to send Cicero into exile and arrange for the demolition of Cicero's luxurious mansion on the Palatine hill.  The ultra-reactionary Cato was promptly sent off to annex Cyprus, where the local king Ptolemy of Cuprus committed suicide (upon news of Cato's arrival?).  Clodius was prepared to fight the conservatives and therefore organised the plebs into groups (what has been called street gangs by most historians), ready to defend their newly-acquired rights.  In 53BC, prior to another election where Clodius was running for Praetor and his enemy Milo for Consul, Milo's supporters organized armed gangs to fight Clodius's suporters.  A vicious steet fight ensued during which Clodius was wounded, and despite attempts of his people to save him, was sought out by Milo's men and hacked to death in the street.  

The end of Clodius was very much in accordance with his dramatic and stormy life.  His body was taken by his outraged and grief-stricken supporters to the Senate house, inside which a funeral pyre was built for him.  As the fire consumed the body of Clodius, it also laid waste to the ultimate symbol of patrician power - the Senate House, which been built by one of Cato's ancestors, was burned by revolting plebs.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Cicero's Advice on Friendships and False Friends...


"...in the first place, pains must be taken that, if possible, so no discord should arise between friends, but in case it does then our care should be that the friendships appear to have burned out rather than to have been stamped out.  And you must indeed be on your guard lest friendships change into serious enmities, which are the source of disputes, abuse and invective.  Yet, even these, if endurable are to be borne and such respect is to be paid to the old-time friendship that he may be in the wrong who committed the offense and not he who suffered it.  
In short:  there is but one security and one provision against these ills and annoyances and that is neither to enlist your love too quickly nor to fix it on unworthy men.  Now they are worthy of friendship who have within their souls the reason for being loved.  A rare class indeed!  And really everything splendid is rare and nothing is harder to find than something which in all respects is a perfect specimen of its kind.  But the majority of men recognize nothing whatever in human experience as good, unless it brings them some profit and they regard friends as they do their cattle, valuing most highly those which give hope of the largest gain.  Thus do they fail to attain that loveliest, most spontaneous friendship, which is desirable in and for itself; and they do not learn from their own experience what the power of such a friendship is and are ignorant of its nature and extent.  

But most men unreasonably, not to say shamelessly, want a friend to be such as they cannot be themselves and require from friends what they themselves do not bestow.  But the fair things is, first of all, to be a good man yourself and then to seek another like yourself.  It is among such people that this stability of friendship may be made secure.

A troublesome thing is truth if it is indeed the source of hate which poisons friendship; but much more troublesome is complaisance...Obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit [complaisance, the desire to oblige  and or fall in with another's taste or flatter another, gets us friends while speaking the truth gets us enemies]."

For more from or about Cicero please see my earlier posts below:
http://fascinatinghistory.blogspot.com/2008/07/friendship-roman-style-what-romans.html
http://fascinatinghistory.blogspot.com/2008/04/cicero-on-father-of-emperor-tiberius.html

Saturday, 2 August 2008

What Julius Caesar looked like


According to Suetonius in his Life of the Deified Julius (45.1-3):

"Caesar is said to have been tall, with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a rather full face and keen black eyes and to have had sound health, except that towards the end of his life he was subject to sudden fainting fits as well as nightmares.  He also had two attacks of epilepsy while on campaign.  
He was fastidious in the care of his person and so not only kept his hair carefully trimmed and shaved, but even had his body hair plucked.  He was extremely vexed by the disfiguring effects of his baldness since he found it exposed him to the ridicule of his opponents.  As a result he used to comb his receding hair forward from the crown of his head and of all the honours voted him by the senate and people, there was none that pleased him more or that he made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath on all occasions.  
They say too that his dress was unusual; his purple-striped tunic had fringe sleeves down to the wrist and he always wore a belt over it, although it was loosely fastened.  This it is said was the reason for Sulla's frequent warning to the optimates to beware of the 'loose-belted boy'."