Ancient History & Civilisation

EIGHT

THE THERMOPYLAE LEGEND I: ANTIQUITY

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Go tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Simonides of Ceos

SOME OF US are very partial to the luxury chocolates made by the Belgian firm of Léonidas. They come with an embossed image of a helmeted ancient Greek warrior’s head in profile – meant of course to be that of Leonidas, our Leonidas. This is presumably a distant genuflection to the fragmentary marble statue in the Sparta Museum that has been given that title (erroneously, alas) and has served as the basis for the modern statue memorials at both Sparta and Thermopylae. There’s a coffee-and-pastries shop not far from Liverpool Street Station in London that offers a free bite-sized Léonidas chocolate as an inducement or bribe to buy a cup of coffee. The ancient Spartans were notoriously amenable to bribes, but they would not have been tempted or amused by such self-indulgent, non-ascetic, want-satisfying fripperies as luxury chocolates. True, they might have been initially more attracted to an English brand once made by Terry’s of York that was called ‘Spartan’, because the chocolates were ‘hard-centre’. But they’d have been dismayed to find on the box an illustration not of their own temples of Artemis Orthia or Athena Chalcioecus in Sparta but of the Archaic-period temple of Apollo at … Corinth. At least the columns were suitably Doric.

The serious point behind all this is that such brand-names as ‘Léonidas’ and ‘Spartan’ are a characteristic contemporary version of the Spartan myth, legend or ‘mirage’ (the latter being the term coined in the 1930s by the French classical scholar François Ollier). This has been and indeed still very much is a key element in the European and so Western cultural tradition. The Spartan myth was crucially forged on the anvil of Thermopylae. And, though its first written manifestations as they have come down to us were the work of non-Spartan Greek admirers, it was launched on its global trajectory by the Spartans themselves.

Perhaps the earliest mythicist to put stylus to papyrus was Critias, leader of the junta of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ at Athens, as they came to be known to their shame. He was the mover and shaker of the fanatically oligarchical and pro-Sparta regime that took over from the defeated Athenian democracy in 404 under the aegis of the all-conquering Spartan admiral Lysander. As such, he was ultimately responsible for conducting a reign of terror that lasted for about a year. Before being assisted to power in this way, he had been an associate or pupil of Socrates and thus was clearly a man of high intelligence, like his younger relative – and fellow Socrates pupil – Plato. But he was also, again like Plato, a man of high literary ambition, and he wrote plays as well as two instructional works on the Spartan politeia (way of life), one each in prose and in verse.

From Critias descends ‘the Spartan tradition’ in its most sophisticated literary form: a form that embraces along its winding and often tortuous course such giants as Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Montaigne and Rousseau. In what follows we shall be staying mainly with this literary version of Spartanism, and focusing within it on Leonidas and Thermopylae. But we shall stray also into other media, visual as well as verbal, and into some of its more popular as well as elite manifestations. First, though, we must pay attention to the ultimate origins of the Spartan myth-tradition.

The Spartans themselves inaugurated and sedulously developed the Thermopylae legend, especially after the Battle of Salamis. They invited both Eurybiadas, the Spartan notionally in overall command of the loyalist Greek coalition forces, and Themistocles, the Athenian genius behind the victory, to an awards ceremony in Sparta. Each was awarded first prize, as it were – a symbolic olive wreath crown, just like the award for victors in the Olympic Games. But Themistocles was given in addition a material gift, a chariot, perhaps a racing-style chariot like those in which Spartans were exceptionally successful at the Olympics and other major Greek games (including the Athenian Panathenaic Games, at which ex-King Demaratus had once carried off the prize in the blue-riband event, the four-horse chariot race). Moreover, after the ceremony and gift-giving were over, Themistocles was provided with an official state escort, to see him safely to the frontier – and, very likely, to see him off the premises, as it were. That escort consisted of precisely three hundred men, the same figure as a Spartan king’s elite military bodyguard but also the same magic number as that of the Thermopylae taskforce of only a month or so earlier.

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Golden model of a heavy chariot, almost 19 cm long, again from the Oxus Treasure; three pony-size horses are handled by a charioteer, who is accompanied by a seated man; on the front of the chariot is a figure looking something like Bes, the widely attested demon of Egyptian origin.

Those Spartans who died at Thermopylae died for Greece and for freedom as well as for Sparta. However, not all of the three hundred had perished in a blaze of glory, and the stories of the two who had not managed to die at Thermopylae were also preserved and disseminated as exemplary, or rather cautionary, tales for both external and domestic consumption. First Pantites, whose only error was to have been away in Thessaly on a diplomatic mission at the time of the final encounter at Thermopylae, was said to have hanged himself on his return to Sparta, because he was ‘dishonoured’. The tense used in Herodotus’s Greek is the imperfect, meaning that the dishonour he suffered was a continuous state until Pantites ended it by another kind of suicide than that to which he had been originally detailed by order of the state. Sparta was an extreme case of an ‘honour and shame’ culture, so I suspect that it was not only the public disgrace heaped upon him but the shame he felt inwardly that prompted him to take his own life. I would judge this, in other words, to be a case of what is now recognized widely as ‘survivor-guilt’.

Even more instructive, though, was the tangled tale of Aristodamus, the subject of a brilliant chapter in W.I. Miller’s comparative study The Mystery of Courage. Aristodamus, by then the sole survivor of the three hundred, did not commit suicide in autumn 480. He somehow endured, presumably, the same public disgrace (oneidos) heaped on Pantites as well as his own shame at survival. Indeed, Aristodamus’s case was a tougher one, since a question-mark hung over his courage. For it so happened that another of the three hundred, Eurytus, had been suffering, as had Aristodamus, from an acute inflammation of the eyes – so acute that for all practical purposes they were both blind and hardly in a position to acquit themselves at their best as fighters. But whereas Eurytus was determined to follow the orders of the Spartans to the letter and die manfully at Thermopylae, and so ordered his Helot batman to lead him into the fray, Aristodamus had – allegedly – quarrelled with Eurytus over this and decided, one presumes, that he would serve Sparta and Greece better by living to fight, much better, and die another day. This was the more favourable of the two – hostile – accounts of Aristodamus’s survival. The other version that Herodotus picked up in Sparta was that, like Pantites, Aristodamus had been sent away from the camp on some errand, with another man, and though they both could have got back to Thermopylae in time to fight and die, only the other man did, whereas Aristodamus deliberately loitered to save his skin.

This extreme hostility to Aristodamus may explain why in his case Herodotus specifies in detail what form the dishonour (atimiê) took: no Spartan would give him light to make a fire. One assumes that applied not just in Sparta but also – and more acutely – during training in the hills and mountains around, and we must remember that winters in Lacedaemon could be very harsh. Worse still, Aristodamus would not be able to make due sacrifice to the gods. Nor was it only fire that was withheld by his fellow Spartiates. They also, as the English expression goes, ‘sent him to Coventry’. It was actually part of their upbringing that Spartan boys were taught by their seniors how to become skilled at being ‘laconic’. So deprivation of that talk, however little of it there might be, was actually deprivation of a very great deal.

Perhaps worst of all, in a closed society that developed its own jargon phrases and terms for all sorts of conditions and statuses, Aristodamus was publicly labelled ‘the Trembler’ (tresas). In other words, he was adjudged officially to have acted the coward, and whatever reason or excuse he himself may have put forward for his absence and survival at the decisive moment was not believed or accepted. Since this is the first mention of this technical term in extant literature, it has been suggested that Aristodamus was the aboriginal Trembler, the Spartan who brought a new category of less than fully ‘peer-group’ (homoioi) Spartans into being. That seems to me unlikely, but not being the pioneer in the field would not have lessened Aristodamus’s humiliation in any way.

Perhaps he deflected and diminished this disgrace and dishonour somewhat, or sought to, by telling anyone who would listen that he would redeem himself, if given his chance. That chance came for him at the Battle of Plataea in 479. Such was Aristodamus’s – perhaps grudgingly acknowledged – military distinction that he was still stationed among the promachoi, the front-line fighters, those whose courage and skill in hand-to-hand combat would be the most sorely tested. Spartan hoplites were trained to advance to the fray with measured step, in unison, to the accompaniment of the reeded double pipes named auloi by the Greeks, what John Milton called ‘flutes and soft recorders’. Shield would overlap with and lock on to adjacent shield. From its enemy’s standpoint the front line would thus ideally have resembled a moving wall, a counterpart to the wooden walls of the Athenian navy. But shortly before the moment of impact, Aristodamus heretically broke ranks. He turned berserker. He did not stay in his allotted position (taxis) but hurled himself against the enemy in a wild frenzy, precisely because he wanted to make sure he would die. So he committed suicide in effect, the suicide that he knew he ought to have committed at Thermopylae; but he did it individually, not in accordance with the collective design, and above all he did it disobediently.

Herodotus gives the statistics of the casualties on both sides and then goes into default competitive-Greek mode. In his own judgement the men of Tegea and Athens had fought best of the infantry, but top of the league as a whole were the Spartans, since theirs had been the hardest victory to achieve. Herodotus then names his ‘man of the match’: Aristodamus.* The Spartans themselves, however, came to a quite contrary post-mortem judgement. For them, the ‘most nameable’ (onomastotatoi) were Poseidonius (called after one of the Spartans’ most important gods), Philocyôn (‘Dog-lover’ – a tribute to the famed breed of Spartan hunting hounds) and Amompharetus (‘Blameless virtue’). Aristodamus came nowhere in the posthumous awards ceremony.

The Spartans conceded that Aristodamus had ‘displayed great deeds’ – that is, fought magnificently; presumably he had taken out several Persians before he himself succumbed. But he had done so for the wrong reason, with the wrong motivation, at the wrong time and in the wrong way. He had fought in this grandstanding manner solely to get himself killed in order to expiate his state of disgrace. Instead of displaying resolute self-discipline, Aristodamus had acted in a mindless frenzy of madness; and to cap it all, he had left his rank and broken martial discipline – his most heinous crime in Spartan eyes. Put differently, he had performed the wrong sort of suicide. Herodotus so far disagreed with this judgement of the Spartans that he was inclined to put it down to mere envy. This disagreement was a sure sign of the gulf between the Spartans’ ideas on life and death and those of other Greeks.

Only Spartan men who died in battle, as we saw in Chapter Four, were entitled to a gravestone with their name inscribed upon it, followed by just the phrase ‘in war’. In general, indeed, the Spartans were parsimonious with any inscribed public documentation. It was therefore a mark of the extreme honour achieved in death by the Thermopylae three hundred (well, 298) that they were granted an inscribed casualty list at Sparta that served also as an official war memorial. Herodotus saw it and was proud to say that he had memorized all their names. Pausanias the Periegete, the travel-writer, also claimed to have seen it some six centuries later. The Spartans no doubt also took the leading role in persuading the Amphictyonic League of Delphi to commission from Simonides for display at Thermopylae itself one of the most famous elegiac couplets of all time:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Spartans who died abroad were normally buried on the spot.* One of the so-called Laconian Apophthegms preserved by Plutarch reinforces the point. A citizen of Sparta’s deadliest Greek enemy, Argos, proudly says to a Spartan, ‘We have lots of graves of you Spartans in our city’s territory’; to which the Spartan replies, ‘Yes, but we have none of yours in ours’ – his point being that the Argives had never managed to penetrate Spartan territory.

There was one exception to that rule of on-the-spot foreign burial for fallen Spartan warriors. In certain circumstances the body of a Spartan king who died abroad might be brought home and given a state funeral. This was the case, eventually, for Leonidas. Herodotus elaborately conveys the extraordinary nature and quality of the Spartan royal funeral in another context, where he is describing the exceptional prerogatives accorded to all the kings in peace and in war, in life and in death. On the death of a king there was declared a suspension of state business that would last for the eleven days of official mourning. Women (presumably free Spartan women) went round the city beating kettle-drums, at which signal two members of each citizen household (oikos) had to don mourning garb – under penalty of a large fine for failure to do so. News of the death and impending funeral was also conveyed by riders dispatched the length and breadth of Sparta’s enormous territory, to Messenia as well as Laconia, informing the whole population that all classes and statuses – Perioecic and Helot as well as Spartan – had to be represented in person at the obsequies that would take place in the capital.*

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The modern national route from Athens to Thessaloniki scythes right through the site of the Thermopylae battlefield, which is now far further from the sea than in 480. Prominently beside the road a handsome memorial was erected to the Spartan war dead in 1955, by the Greek government with Greek–American money. The statue of Leonidas seen here in left profile was modelled on the ‘Leonidas’ torso combined with representations of authentic ancient Greek shields bearing the device of a gorgon found both in Sparta and elsewhere (e.g., Olympia). Later, a modern memorial was also set up for the men of Thespiae who died heroically alongside Leonidas and his three hundred.

But what if a king died abroad ‘in war’? Herodotus had asked this question too, and had been given the answer that a substitute image (eidôlon) of him would be fashioned, then carried to burial in Sparta on a richly caparisoned catafalque. The clear implication is that the actual body of the king would not be brought back but would be buried on the spot, like those of all other Spartans. In Leonidas’s case there was a very good reason indeed for that practice, as we saw, and probably his exceptional case was the source of the supposed rule. For, according to Greek reports, despite their heroic efforts the Spartans had not been able to prevent the Persians from decapitating his dead body on the orders of Xerxes and Mardonius. By the time the Greeks gained access to it, presumably only after the Persian horde had passed on south beyond Thermopylae, it would have decomposed further, possibly even beyond recognition, and certainly beyond the possibility of embalming it with either wax or honey (supposing those materials had been to hand in sufficient quantity).* So, although the Spartans might well have wished ideally to bring Leonidas’s corpse back to Sparta in 480 to receive honours ‘greater than those normally accorded to a mortal man’ – this was how Xenophon described the burial honours of Agesilaus’s half-brother Agis II, who died in 400 – they simply could not.

About forty years later they made amends. This was a time of formal peace between the two great powers of Greece, Sparta and Athens, though also a time of great and mounting tension between them. A reminder of Sparta’s role in the Graeco-Persian Wars was in order. So a Spartan detail was pointedly sent to the pass at Thermopylae, and perhaps to the small hill marked by a stone lion monument where, or near where, Leonidas had fallen. These men duly recovered what they were persuaded were the remains of Leonidas and brought them back to Sparta, where they were reburied with all due pomp and circumstance.

Actually, all Spartan kings were automatically heroized. They were given the honorific status of semi-divine heroes after their death and were paid thereafter in perpetuity the religious worship appropriate to heroes. But Leonidas was something special, and it comes as no surprise to find that in later centuries a formal festival was devoted to him, called the Leonidaea. Still to be seen in Sparta, not far from the acropolis, are the quite substantial remains of the religious building known as the Leonidaion that acted as the focal point of this cult worship. Predictably, too, that worship was associated with a posthumous cult devoted to the other Spartan leader in those wars, Regent Pausanias, despite the vicissitudes of his subsequent career.*

The same message of panhellenist commemoration was intended by the construction in the centre of Sparta town of two permanent monuments that served also as memorials of the Graeco-Persian Wars: the Hellenion (‘place of the Greeks’) religious sanctuary and the colonnade known as the Persian Stoa, the latter with remarkable architectural depictions of Persian captives.

Herodotus, however, begged to disagree with the Spartans’ propaganda and sided, controversially, with the Athenians. Here is his intervention on the contested issue of which of the two Greek states, Sparta or Athens, had done most to defeat the Persian invasion:

At this point I feel myself constrained to express an opinion that most will find objectionable, but which, since I believe it to be true, I must not withhold. If the Athenians, through fear of the imminent danger, had abandoned their country, or if they had remained but submitted to Xerxes, then there would certainly have been no attempt to resist Xerxes by sea and … I cannot myself see what possible use it would have been [for the Spartans] to fortify the Isthmus as long as the Persian navy had mastery of the sea. So if anyone were to say that it was the Athenians who were the saviours of Greece, that would not be very wide of the mark. It was the Athenians who held the balance of the scales: whichever side they joined would be bound to prevail. It was they who, choosing freedom, roused the Greek states that had not yet prevailed. And it was they who – after the gods – repulsed the Great King.1

This was written with all due attention to the ticklish sensitivities that surrounded the issue at the time he was composing (in the 440s and 430s) no less than in the early 470s. Hence his defensive phrase ‘an opinion that most will find objectionable’: this was a coded reference to the fact that in the 440s and 430s the Athenians were using their supposedly decisive liberationist role in the Graeco-Persian Wars as an argument in favour of maintaining the anti-Persian maritime empire that ‘most’ Greeks affected by it considered to be a form of tyranny.*

The Athenians themselves – official spokesmen of the Athenian democracy, not isolated untypical pro-Spartan Athenians like Critias – not unnaturally agreed wholeheartedly with Herodotus, and they expressed this view openly whenever they could. First, there is the evidence of the annual Athenian public Funeral Speech (in honour of all that year’s war dead). The tradition of choosing a distinguished citizen to deliver such a speech seems to have originated in the 460s. We have only a handful surviving in any form, and not all of these record real speeches as opposed to imaginary confections or reconstructions. But two of the authentic ones, those composed by the speechwriter Lysias and by the politician Hyperides, both mention Thermopylae, and in interestingly different ways, reflecting the time and circumstances of their composition and delivery.

Lysias’s was composed around 400 BCE, only a few years after the Athenians’ defeat in the Atheno-Peloponnesian War, the imposition of a tyranny (the Thirty) and the restoration of democracy at Athens, all at the hands or behest of Sparta:

While this invasion [by Xerxes] was preoccupying Greece, the Athenians went on board their ships and came to the rescue at Artemisium. The Spartans and some of the allies [of the coalition] met the Persians at Thermopylae. They thought they would be able to prevent the Persians’ entry there thanks to the region’s narrowness. The battles occurred simultaneously. But whereas the Athenians were victorious at sea, the Spartans were destroyed. They were not lacking in bravery, but they miscalculated the number of guards needed and the number of attackers. They were not [however] defeated by the enemy, because they died where they were stationed to fight.

The respect Lysias shows for the Spartans is palpable, though he probably enjoyed writing ‘the Spartans were destroyed’.*

Hyperides, on the other hand, was writing in the middle of a war of rebellion and resistance against not a barbarian Persian overlord, but the Greek Macedonians, whose hegemony of Greece had been established by Philip II in 338 and confirmed by his son Alexander the Great (reigned 336–323). Sparta, though an enemy of Macedon, was not part of this Greece-wide resistance led by Athens in the late 320s – partly because Athens had earlier decided not to support the Spartans when their King Agis III raised a disastrously unsuccessful revolt against Alexander’s regent Antipater in 331. Hyperides therefore wastes no breath on praising the Spartans, but rather criticizes them by implication: whereas ‘the barbarians’ (Persians) had marched through the pass of Thermopylae when the Spartans had occupied it, the Athenian general Leosthenes (the real hero of the piece), when he occupied Thermopylae, ‘denied Antipater entry into Greece’ and indeed shut him up in Lamia in Thessaly not far to the north of Thermopylae.

Alexander the Great himself is also a major contributor to the Thermopylae legend – though his contribution has rarely been recognized for what it is. After the first of his three major set-piece victories over the imperial forces of Persian Great King Darius III, the Battle of the Granicus River in 334, he ordered precisely three hundred panoplies (suits of armour and weapons) to be sent back to Athens as trophies. Punctilious as always in matters of religion, he intended these to be dedicated to Athena on the Athenian Acropolis, accompanied by the following diplomatic dedication: ‘Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks – except the Lacedaemonians – [set up these spoils taken] from the barbarians dwelling in Asia.’ Alexander does not call himself ‘King’ Alexander, since the Athenians were by no means enthusiastic subjects of his, and he emphasizes that this is to be an almost but not quite panhellenic offering. The panhellenism was de rigueur, because his whole expedition was supposedly motivated by the need and desire to avenge the sacrilege inflicted on the Greeks and especially the Athenians by Great King Xerxes 150 years before.* So why does Alexander choose to spell out ‘except the Spartans’?

Because in 334 the Spartans were conspicuous only by their absence from this new, ostensibly panhellenic campaign. In fact, to them it was Alexander, not Darius, who was the main enemy at the time, and they even collaborated (in both senses) with the Persian resistance against Alexander behind his back. How different it had all been in 480 and 479, when the Spartans were the acknowledged champions of ‘the Greeks’ in resistance against Persian invasion. And how, by now, were the mighty fallen. Hence Alexander’s choice to dedicate specifically on the Acropolis of Athens precisely three hundred suits of armour and weapons. So much for the great Thermopylae three hundred of yore – sic transit gloria laconica. From those three hundred panoplies, fourteen shields were actually displayed as trophies across the eastern (front) façade of the mightiest structure on the Acropolis, the Parthenon. The surviving nail-holes bear telling witness to that lofty demonstration of Sparta’s faded glory.

The Spartans fought back in these culture wars. Within the post-Alexander ‘Hellenistic’ period (323–30 BCE) the Leonidaion was built and the Leonidaea festival inaugurated, yet another addition to their already crowded religious calendar. In 146 BCE Greece south of Macedon was subjugated by the new kid on the Mediterranean imperial block, the mighty power of Rome. Again, as the Roman poet Horace put it, the Greeks fought back culturally:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, et artes
intulit agresti Latio …

Captive Greece took her fierce conqueror captive, and introduced the
arts to rustic Latium

In a major philosophical disquisition, the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero actually translated the Simonides elegy into a more than passable Latin elegiac couplet:

Dic, hospes, Spartae nos te hic vidisse iacentes,
dum sanctis patriae legibus obsequimur.2

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Patriae’ – ‘fatherland’ – is placed centrally by Cicero in the pentameter line, and cannot fail to recall Horace’s equally famous ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland’),3 which has served to inspire poets and other creative artists, including now film-makers, in many succeeding generations. Within the German tradition, for example, Cicero inspired Friedrich Schiller in his ‘Der Spaziergang’ (‘The Walk’);4 and that in its turn was the inspiration for Heinrich Böll’s Second World War story ‘Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa …?’ (‘Traveller, are you coming to Spa …?’ (1950), set in the type of elite classicizing German secondary school called a Gymnasium, in which Classical languages and ancient Spartan history would have been routinely taught.

Ancient Greeks for their part tended fondly to imagine that Rome had originally been a Greek foundation, since the word rhômê in Greek meant ‘strength’. There was even talk of a biological kinship between the Romans and the Spartans, though actually this was an example of the sort of cunning deployment of kinship diplomacy that both eased the Romans’ path to imperial power and sugared the pill of domination for its proud Greek subjects. At any rate, it was late in the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (CE 98–117) that the Leonidaea festival was refounded at Sparta, probably as a response to the campaign that Trajan was then waging against the Parthians, an Iranian people related (more genuinely) to the ancient Persians against whom Leonidas had fought.

The refoundation was financed by a local benefactor called C. Iulius Agesilaus. The last of his three names is pure Spartan Greek, indeed regal. But the first two, ‘Caius Iulius’, bespeak the fact that a direct male ancestor of his had been granted Roman citizenship by one C. Julius Octavianus Caesar, better known as Octavian or Caesar Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. The Spartans had chosen to side with Octavian (as he then still was), the eventual victor in the huge civil war that pitted him, the grand-nephew and appointed heir of Julius Caesar, against Caesar’s former lieutenant Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). One key reason for their choice, unusual in the Greek world, was that the neighbouring Messenians – the descendants of the Helots eventually liberated by Thebes in 370/69 BCE – took Antony’s side; and ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Sparta benefited enormously from this lucky decision, collectively in the form of public benefactions of various material kinds as well as individually in the shape of Roman citizenship grants to prominent Spartans.

In its Roman-period manifestation the Leonidaea festival was accompanied by a trade fair. The Spartans deliberately sought to attract travelling merchants from abroad by exempting them from the usual local sales and import–export taxes. There is even mention of a publicly regulated bank of commercial exchange operating, something the Spartans of Leonidas’s own day could not have begun to contemplate, let alone tolerate or encourage. This openness towards foreigners was in flagrant contradiction of their Classical ancestors’ xenophobia. As Herodotus tells us, the Spartans of his day did not distinguish in their vocabulary between non-Spartans who were Greek and non-Spartans who were non-Greek: they called them all alike xenoi, whereas other Greeks normally distinguished between xenoi, foreigners who might be either Greek or non-Greek, and barbaroi, foreigners who were by definition non-Greek and indeed ‘inferior’ barbarians. There was even a widespread view outside Sparta in the fifth century that the Spartans practised regular expulsions of xenoi, for both cultural and political reasons.

That, however, is less probable. While some xenoi might on specific occasions have been expelled (Aristagoras of Miletus in the year 500, for instance), other Greek xenoi were actually welcomed, especially to the annual Gymnopaediae festival. These favouredxenoi were the ones who had hereditary personal friendships with individual Spartans and (or) who sympathized strongly with the distinctive Spartan way of life and political outlook. If you did not happen to like them, then you might object that Spartan ways did not mix well or at all with those of other Greeks. But if on the contrary you liked both very much indeed, then, like Xenophon of Athens, you might actually send your sons to Sparta to be educated under the watchful eye of your Spartan xenoi – in Xenophon’s case King Agesilaus II, who was very likely an ancestor of our second-century CE C. Iulius Agesilaus.

In the middle of the second century CE Pausanias the Periegete passed through Sparta, collecting material for his religiously inflected historical travelogue of central and southern mainland Greece. He was a Greek from Asia Minor, but inevitably a Roman subject too, and he suffered from chronic nostalgia, specifically for the era of the Graeco-Persian Wars. He was happy, consequently, to find that the Spartans of his day were actively cultivating and manipulating their city’s architecture as a shrine to the memory of the great deeds performed by their countrymen all of six hundred years earlier. The memorial for Leonidas found a privileged place on his itinerary. So too did the tomb said to be that of Eurybiadas, the Spartan admiral of 480, and – even more to our point – the memorials for the Thermopylae dead and for Regent Pausanias, and the so-called Persian Stoa in what passed at Sparta for an agora, or meeting-place.

Pausanias belongs within the general Greek movement of cultural recuperation and reinvention known for short as the Second Sophistic.* For such intellectuals, the attraction of Leonidas was that he was such a glaringly obvious hero of the great Greek past (alas, long past) for contemporary rhetoricians and sophists to shower with nostalgic praise. Indeed, so regular and intense was their often fulsome eulogy of him that the practice earned a satirical put-down from the brilliantly witty Lucian.

Plutarch (c. 46–120), on the other hand, would not have dreamt of satirizing Leonidas. Apart from the purely rhetorical productions of his youth (including encomia of Alexander the Great), and the host of philosophical essays of his maturity, Plutarch’s major contribution to Greek literature and culture was his series of parallel biographies of the great Greeks and Romans of the more or less distant past. Among these was a Life of Leonidas, but it is unfortunately one of the very few of his Lives that did not survive from antiquity to our day. What we have are the apophthegms attributed to Leonidas in the collection Sayings of Kings and Commanders, or deployed by Plutarch in the extant Lives.

In his Life of the reforming, if not revolutionary, Spartan King Cleomenes III (reigned 235–222 BCE), for instance, Plutarch writes:

It is said that, when the Leonidas of olden times was asked to give his view of the quality of Tyrtaeus as a poet, he replied:

‘A fine one for firing the spirits of the young.’ This was on the grounds that the poems filled the young with such enthusiasm that they stopped worrying about their own lives in battle.

This is a classic demonstration of the invention of tradition in action. Through this quotation, from a work of the early second century CE, by way of a saying attributed to a celebrated Spartan king of the early fifth century BCE, the reader is taken back imaginatively – as Plutarch intended – to the life, work and times of the Spartans’ ‘national’ poet in the seventh century.* Plutarch contrives to suggest an immensely high level of cultural continuity over some eight hundred years, when in fact – as he and Pausanias the Periegete must surely have confessed to themselves in quieter moments of sober reflection – the world had changed, irreparably, and by no means entirely for the better, as they saw it.

In the following, third century CE the Christian apologist Origen (c. 185–253) had no qualms about appealing to pagan precedent in his war of words with the pagan Celsus. Origen was even prepared to suggest that the central Christian mystery of Christ’s passion and death might be suitably illuminated by a comparison with the self-chosen and avoidable death of Leonidas. A century later, the struggle between pagan and Christian – not to mention between one kind of Christian and another – had intensified, to the point of not just verbal recrimination but mutual slaughter. Amidst the fray, but hoping to stand above it, Synesius of Cyrene was proud to proclaim his supposed Spartan lineage. (Cyrene had been founded in north Africa, in modern Libya, in the later seventh century BCE; its founders had come from Thera, the modern Cycladic island of Santorini (its Venetian name), and by some accounts the original founders of the city of Thera were refugees from Sparta, of which Cyrene was hence a granddaughter city.)

Specifically, Synesius advertised his descent from Eurysthenes, one of the twin founders of the two Spartan royal houses of the Agiads and Eurypontids (Leonidas was an Agiad). Synesius left behind his pagan roots and became a Christian bishop, and his bookishness was hardly an ancestral Spartan trait. On the other hand, his passionate devotion to hunting in his pre-Christian days would not have struck his supposed Spartan forebears as at all odd. Being away hunting was one of the very few legitimate excuses that a Spartan of Leonidas’s time could offer for being absent from the compulsory evening mess meal.

Such kinship claims, made by whole communities as well as individuals, were a common phenomenon in Roman times. But they are attested as early as the fifth century BCE, within a purely Greek context, and they became such common currency in the Hellenistic era that they could be made by people or peoples without a drop of Greek blood in their veins – and made plausibly, too, in the hope of achieving recognition and acceptance. So it was that in the early third century BCE the then High Priest of Jerusalem made bold to claim the shared descent of the Jews and the Spartans from Abraham and Moses. And the Spartan King Areus responded in positive vein – or so the Jewish text of Maccabees would have it. This was the Jews’ way both of finding a place symbolically in the Hellenistic world order and, more practically, of obtaining a feasible foreign ally against the encroachments of the aggressive local monarchs of the post-Alexander Seleucid house.

As for Synesius, he was immediately concerned to draw strength from an over-optimistic and self-serving comparison of his struggle against nomads ravaging Cyrenaica to Leonidas’s rather more universally significant defence of Greece against the Persian invaders.

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