Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Night in Sparta

Not long after I started doing research for my novels on ancient Sparta I seized the opportunity to visit that part of Greece that had given birth to Sparta – the province of Laconia in the Peloponnese. The city itself was gone, destroyed by earthquakes, abandoned, ploughed under and washed away over the centuries to the point that even archeologists can find little of note left. But we know where Sparta once stood, and a new city was founded on this site in the mid-nineteenth century and called Sparti.


I flew to Athens and travelled down to modern Sparti by car, crossing the Isthmus of Corinth and stopping to visit the ruins of that powerful ancient mercantile city. Then I continued on the road past the towering mountain crowned with the ruins of Acrocorinth, leaving Agamemnon’s city of Mycenae for a different trip, and scorning to set foot in Sparta’s ancient rival Argos. I crossed the broad plain of modern Tripoli, ancient Tegea, and climbed the low hills to the south heading along the highway toward Sparti/Sparta.

I expected to find on the other side of those hills something, well, Spartan. The word itself connotes sparse, barren, bleak, even harsh. I expected an arid place in which little could grow. I expected a harsh, infertile landscape best suited to producing tough soldiers and citizens who disdained all luxury. Sparta, I assumed, had made a virtue of necessity when it condemned the display of wealth and banned coinage. Sparta, I thought, was surely a poor country in which learning survival – even by theft and conquest – was sheer necessity.

And then I came around the bend in the road and caught my first glimpse of Sparta’s heartland – the Eurotas valley. It defied all expectations and was one of the most fertile, flowering and naturally beautiful places I had seen anywhere in Greece! Instantly, my understanding of Sparta started to undergo revisions. Not only is the Eurotas valley green and fertile, the surrounding mountains, the Paron range to the east and Taygetos to the West, were not barren and covered with scrub growth typical of much of the Mediterranean, but richly forested. In short, Sparta had been exceptionally rich by ancient standards – even before it conquered the vast and agriculturally significant neighboring state of Messenia! No wonder Sparta had never developed significant trade with the rest of the world; it was completely self-sufficient.

I visited what few archeological remains there were, wandering between the olive trees and oleander bushes that cover the Spartan acropolis today to examine the odd wall of stone here and there as the sun went down. I sat on the stone steps of the Roman amphitheatre and gazed toward the western sky, now turned a luminous purple behind the rugged peaks of Taygetos, and listened to the crickets singing in frantic chorus. It was, for a moment, almost if the famous choruses of ancient Sparta, which had once drawn visitors from around the ancient world, were trapped indignantly in the bodies of the insects.

When it was so dark that I had to pick my way with great care across the rumble, I returned to my hotel and ordered wine. Remembering that the Spartans never drank their wine “neat” (unmixed), I ordered sparkling water as well and mixed this with the wine when it arrived. It was wonderfully refreshing and to this day I prefer my wine this way. It struck me that often less is better, that the saying “nothing in excess” originated from a Spartan philosopher and statesman, Chilon the Wise. Was it the very abundance of riches that had taught the Spartans the dangers of excess? Was it possible that it was because they had so much wealth that they were keen to ration it – or at least the display of it? Or had they collectively gorged themselves on their abundant resources at some point in the distant past and woken up with such a hangover that they decreed it should not happen ever again, making laws to not only water wine, and ration food, but to avoid all excessive self-indulgence?

Or was it the fear that differences in wealth – or at least the open display of such differences – would undermine solidarity in the Spartan ranks and so endanger morale in the army, the basis of Spartan power, that induced the Spartans to restrict conspicuous consumption? After all, in other city-states the sons of the rich served in the elite cavalry rather than marching in the dust with the middle class, while the poorest citizens pulled the oars in the bowels of the great triremes – a job so unpleasant and unglamorous that it was more commonly given to slaves. But all Spartans, regardless of wealth, were required to wear the same colors, carry the same arms and serve as heavy infantrymen. Spartans referred to themselves as “Equals,” and it is easier to maintain that sense of equality if no one is obviously much wealthier than his peers, if they had the same profession, ate the same meals in their messes, and were not allowed to hoard silver or gold. Sparta’s laws clearly reinforced the image of equality among its citizen-soldiers while not actually eliminating differences in wealth as many ancient commentators noted.

One thing was clear: the Eurotas valley could easily sustain the citizen population of Sparta, which never exceeded roughly 8,000 men, and here even a small estate could be a garden of plenty. Indeed, in such a beautiful setting, each farm would have been like a little piece of Paradise.

When I retired to my room, I was glad that modern Sparti is a sleepy town in summertime. No hordes of tourists come to see the unremarkable ruins of the Spartan acropolis or visit the tiny museum with its handful of artifacts, while the students of the local university were away on summer break. So the town soon fell silent below my window, just as ancient Sparta would have been with its citizens either dispersed to their estates or in barracks. But the stars were all the more visible, and in the silence, the singing of the crickets could again be heard. It was a cheerful sound. I was beginning to understand that Sparta was not at all the grim place most modern writers make it out to be.

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