(This is Part I of a two-part series. See HERE for Part II.)
|Professor Stephen Hodkinson|
Today we have a guest post by Professor Stephen Hodkinson, BA, PhD, FSA, Professor of Ancient History and Director of the Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Professor Hodkinson is a world leader in the history of Sparta, and edited and helped write (along with co-author Ian Macgregor Morris) “Sparta in Modern Thought.” Dr. Hodkinson was even made an Honorary Citizen of the modern city of Sparta in Greece for his academic contributions to the history of Sparta.
As I expound upon in Part II, a common slogan among the more extremist groups of U.S. pro-gun activists is "Molon labe!" (ancient Greek for “Come and take them”), a phrase which was supposedly spoken by King Leonidas I after Xerxes I commanded him to lay down his arms and surrender, at the Battle of Thermopylae (as written by the ancient historian Plutarch, who was a Greek Roman). Pro-gun activists in the U.S. use the cry as a sort of code phrase to oppose any and all gun regulation, with the fallacious assumption that, no matter how commonsense the regulation may be, it would eventually lead to complete confiscation of all civilian firearms (and thus they would utter the phrase upon any attempt to take them away).
But I wondered how appropriate such a slogan was. Though it fit the idea of surrendering arms, I wanted to delve a bit deeper. As I understood it, the Sparta of Leonidas was deeply stratified and had some very profound rules about earning honor and rigorous military training.
Thus, I was curious, and hoped Dr. Hodkinson could help answer some questions: Could anyone in Sparta possess weaponry? Were Helots or the others banned from owning weapons? Did you have to earn the right, even as a Spartiate? At what age could you possess a weapon? Were women allowed to be armed? Once earned, could anyone carry a weapon anywhere they wished in society?
My main goal was to compare and contrast the reality of arms control between that of Sparta in the time of Leonidas and the U.S. of today, and see if the utterance of "Molon labe!" is really pertinent to the modern pro-gun movement or is simply a shallow and narrowly-focused slogan.
So I wrote Dr. Hodkinson with these questions. Below was his academic response. In Part II I will then evaluate his response in light of the gun control and pro-gun movements.
From Dr. Hodkinson:
From Dr. Hodkinson:
Did Sparta exercise arms control in its society?
(Academic opinion in response to a query from Baldr Odinson)
Professor Stephen Hodkinson. BA, PhD, FSA
Professor of Ancient History and Director, Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies
University of Nottingham
My comments here derive from my research over the last few years on the role of war and military elements in Spartan culture. I have published an early version of my findings in an article, “Was classical Sparta a military society?”, in Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell (eds.), Sparta and War (Classical Press of Wales, Swansea, 2006), pp. 111-162.
My comments deal with ancient Sparta in the Classical period of Greek history: i.e. the 5th and 4th centuries BC. This was the period when Sparta was at the peak of its power: when it led the Greek resistance to the Persian invasion (480-479 BC, which included the battle of Thermopylae), when it fought the Peloponnesian War against Athens (431-404 BC), and when it controlled a short-lived empire, which collapsed after Sparta’s defeat at the battle of Leuktra in 371 BC.
Spartan society was highly stratified and, in discussing the question of access to arms, we need to distinguish several different groups. Traditionally, there were three main groups:
- The Spartiates (nowadays, in popular parlance, simply called the ‘Spartans’). This was the elite group of full citizens. They lived in the five central villages of Sparta and were a leisured elite of landowners. Their country estates, which occupied the most fertile plains within Sparta’s quite large territory, were cultivated by an unfree population, the helots (see below). Spartiate boys went through the public upbringing from age 7 and Spartiate men alone exercised political rights. Spartiate girls also received some form of public physical training before marriage.
- The perioikoi (‘dwellers around’). This was another group of free men and women. They lived in a number of self-governing villages or small towns scattered around Sparta’s territory. Economically, they ranged from wealthy leisured landowners to ordinary working farmers and craftsmen etc. They were not full citizens like the Spartiates (they did not exercise any political rights in Sparta itself or go through the Spartiate upbringing), but they did have some form of subsidiary membership of the broader political community. The ancient term for the Spartan state, ‘the Lakedaimonians’, embraced both the Spartiates and the perioikoi.
- The helots. These were an unfree population who farmed the Spartiates’ country estates and were also servants in the Spartiates’ households in Sparta itself.
There were also a number of other groups in the society. The people in these groups were free, but not full citizens. Over the course of the Classical period, two of these other groups became numerically significant:
- The Inferiors. These were Spartiates who had lost full citizen status for various reasons: most notably impoverishment which prevented them from making their compulsory food contributions to their common mess, which led to loss of Spartiate status.
- The neodamodeis. These were former helots who had been given their freedom in return for military service in Sparta’s armies. This status was probably created during the Peloponnesian War in the 420s BC.
A couple of further minor groups are worth mentioning:
- The mothakes. Exactly who these were is debated. In my view, these were boys from former Spartiate families which had lost full citizen status, but who were sponsored through the public upbringing by wealthy Spartiates and on successful completion could regain Spartiate status.
- The nothoi (‘bastards’). These were probably sons of Spartiate fathers by helot women.
Ownership of and access to arms: military weapons
The phrase “molon labe” (“come and take them”) ascribed to King Leonidas at the battle of Thermopylae relates to military arms used in warfare. Most soldiers in Sparta were heavy-armed hoplites, whose offensive weapons were a spear and a short sword (shorter than the sword of hoplites from other Greek states). Hoplite service was normally reserved to adult males (i.e. men aged 20 and over). Among the Spartiates the age of retirement from hoplite service was age 60.
Of the groups listed above, the Spartiates, perioikoi, Inferiors, neodamodeis and nothoi are all attested as fighting as hoplites in Sparta’s armies. (Nowadays, we talk loosely about the ‘Spartan army’; but Sparta’s army was never composed solely of Spartiates. The ‘Lakedaimonian army’ would be more accurate and closer to ancient usage.) We can reasonably assume that adult male hoplites from all these groups of free persons had legitimate personal ownership of military weapons, which they would typically store at home when not on active service.
The situation regarding the helots is slightly more complex. (Peter Hunt’s controversial book, Slaves, Warfare and Ideology in the Greek Historians, argues that the helots had a larger military role than most scholars believe.) In my view, they did not normally have an active fighting role. There were occasional exceptions: in the crucial battle of Plataia in 479 BC, the final battle of the Persian War, 35,000 helots participated as light-armed (not hoplite) troops; and modest numbers of helots sometimes fought on overseas campaigns during the Peloponnesian War. But these were exceptional occasions. Each Spartiate was normally accompanied on campaign by a helot personal servant; but there were strict precautions to prevent these helots gaining access to usable arms. So there is every reason to believe that within Spartan territory helots would normally have been prevented from owning or gaining access to military weapons – or at least to spears (see below).
Returning to the various groups who are attested as fighting as hoplites, did they have to earn the right to bear and own arms? Again, there is no text that specifies the exact legal position; but there were certain hoops that men from the different groups had to go through. A Spartiate boy almost certainly had to fulfil all the demands of the upbringing, in order to be allowed to join the army at age 20; the same surely also applied to young mothakes. The neodamodeis had to agree to perform military service for Sparta in return for being granted their freedom. As for members of the perioikoi, on reaching adulthood they had to be accepted as legitimate citizens in their own local communities and they probably also had to have sufficient wealth to afford the hoplite equipment – as was the case in most other Greek states.
Gender. No women from any of the groups in Spartan society fought in the Lakedaimonian army or had any guard duty roles, so they probably had no right to own or use military weapons.
Age. As already indicated, for the Spartiates (and probably for the other groups too) eligibility for hoplite service began at age 20. Whether or not a Spartiate teenager possessed his own weapons before he started hoplite service is not mentioned in any ancient source. It may be that youths in their late teens, soon about to become hoplites, did so, but it is very difficult to demonstrate. In Athens, and possibly in other Greek states, 18-19-year-olds from citizen families who could afford it (families had to pay their teenagers’ costs) could serve as ephebes, being assigned static guard duties inside Athenian territory. Athenian teenagers would necessarily have their own weapons during this period of service. However, no source mentions anything parallel in Sparta (on the enigmatic Krypteia, see below). Contrary to popular opinion, Greek hoplite fighting, even in Sparta, involved remarkably little specialised prior training. It was generally assumed that using spear or sword was such a natural activity that it required little formal training, and in other states one has references to youths just grabbing their father’s weapons stored at home and playing at fighting. In Sparta, of course, boys were away from home in the public upbringing from age 7, so one might imagine that training teenagers for combat would have been more organised. However, none of the evidence for the Spartiate public upbringing makes any mention of specialised military training: either practice in the use of spear or sword or practice in group combat. The only implied reference to formal military training (and this was for hoplites generally, not specifically part of the upbringing) is to formation drill: coordinated manoeuvres to get the phalanx into the right position before or during battle. It would be reasonable to assume that 18-19-year-old Spartiates were included in this formation drill training in preparation for when they turned age 20; and also that it was probably practised spear in hand, to make it more realistic. However, this is only assumption and it cannot be used to infer that boys below age 18 had access to military weapons. (In an incident discussed below, when one boy accidentally killed another, he did so with a whittling knife, not a military weapon.)
Use of military weapons in everyday peacetime life
There were certain specific occasions in everyday peacetime life when men who had legitimate ownership of military weapons could take them out of storage at home and make use of them in public situations. One was for the formation training mentioned above. Another was for hunting expeditions in the countryside, for which spears were used. Yet another may have been for certain types of public dances: notably the so-called pyrriche, which mimicked combat movements and was conducted bearing one’s shield – and possibly one’s spear (the evidence differs on this point).
However, apart from these specific occasions, the Spartiates (and no doubt the other groups who fought in the army) normally went about their daily lives unarmed: i.e. without carrying weapons. This point is attested by two contemporary writers: Thucydides, writing about Greece in general in the late 5th century; and Xenophon, writing specifically about Sparta in the early 4th century.
Thucydides (1.5-6) says that in certain (less civilised) parts of Greece – he mentions various peoples in central Greece – the old practice of carrying arms still survives because of the continuing danger of piracy. The clear implication is that in more secure and civilised Greek states people no longer carried weapons in everyday life; and this is confirmed when he goes on to say that the Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and also to adopt the fashion of wearing luxurious dress. He then says that the Lakedaimonians (i.e. Spartans) were the first to dress more simply in accord with modern taste. The implications are: (1) that by the time of their shift to simpler dress the Spartans had already followed the Athenian example of not carrying arms in everyday life; (2) that the Athenians and other civilised Greeks then adopted the Spartan example of simple dress, so that by Thucydides’ time in the late 5th century they all dressed simply and without carrying arms.
Xenophon, in his Hellenika (3.3.7), gives an account of a planned conspiracy in Sparta around 400 BC whose leaders hoped to recruit various non-Spartiate groups – the helots, neodamodeis, Inferiors and perioikoi – to revolt against the Spartiates. The conspiracy was nipped in the bud because an informer brought it to the attention of the authorities and reported a conversation he had had with the conspiracy’s leader, a certain Kinadon. When the informer asked Kinadon where the rebels would get arms, this is how Xenophon reports Kinadon’s words and actions (I quote):
“Those of us who are in the army, of course, have arms of our own. As for the mob, I will show you.” He had then taken him into the iron market and pointed out to him the great supply of knives, swords, spits, axes, hatchets and sickles. “And tools”, he said, “which are used for work in agriculture, forestry or stonework are also weapons, and most of the other industries, too, use implements which are perfectly good weapons, especially against unarmed men.”
From this evidence we can deduce that: (1) various types of everyday sharp and bladed implements (but not spears), were available for purchase in the market and for use by all sorts of subordinate groups – whether the swords mentioned in the passage would have been sold to helots is an interesting but unanswerable question; (2) despite this easy availability of dangerous implements to potential rebels, the Spartiates went about their daily lives unarmed.
Earlier in the episode Xenophon gives a series of snapshots of Spartiate daily life. He depicts around 75 Spartiates doing business in the agora surrounded by more than 4,000 non-Spartiates; other Spartiates walking about the streets in ones and twos, also outnumbered by non-Spartiates; finally, individual Spartiates out on their country estates supervising a mass of helot labourers. So we can’t account for the fact that the Spartiates didn’t carry arms by arguing that they were always massed in a group, giving them strength in numbers. Xenophon implies that a Spartiate remained unarmed even when on his own out on his country estates, separated from his fellow citizens. Some TV programmes about Sparta, such as the History Channel’s The Rise and Fall of the Spartans (2002), show images of helots working the fields supervised by Spartiates standing over them fully armed in military gear. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The only occasion when certain Spartiates are said to have gone out among the helots armed with a military weapon was as part of the infamous Krypteia. According to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus ch. 28), reporting information from Aristotle (probably a work written by Aristotle’s students within his collective research into Greek constitutions), a select group of young Spartiates was sent out carrying the short Spartan sword, the encheiridion, with the brief to kill helots. This, however, was a very limited occasion. According to the latest study, Jean Ducat’s Spartan Education (2006, ch. 9), it took place for a limited period perhaps only once a year, involving a very small number of young Spartiates, perhaps only a dozen or so (possibly 18-19-year-olds, possibly young men in their 20s: the evidence is ambiguous). It does not represent normal everyday Spartan practice.
Use of non-military ‘weapons’ in everyday life
As the Xenophon passage shows, everyday life in a pre-industrial agrarian society like Sparta necessarily involved the regular use of a wide range of sharp and bladed implements which would have been available to men and women from all groups in the society.
This included not just adults but also boys. In his Anabasis – his account of the expedition of the Greek mercenaries known as the ‘Ten Thousand’ into the Persian Empire – Xenophon (4.8.25-6) mentions that one of the troops was a Spartiate called Drakontios who had been exiled from home as a ‘boy’ because he had accidentally killed another boy with the stroke of a xyele. (In a Spartan context, the Greek term for ‘boy’ (pais) could mean anything from age 7 to 14.) The xyele was a curved knife, a Lakonian speciality, used especially for whittling, not specifically for fighting; but obviously its availability could prove tragic in the wrong circumstances. We don’t know anything more about the precise circumstances of this accidental killing. What’s interesting is the severe punishment of exile meted out by the Spartan authorities to the boy Drakontios for the crime of accidental homicide. This was the same punishment as was meted out to Spartan kings who were convicted of taking bribes against Sparta’s state interests whilst on campaign.
Finally, some comments on the “molon labe” phrase ascribed to Leonidas at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. It does not appear in Herodotus’ account, written in the later 5th century, which records the witty sayings of another member of the 300, Dienekes. Neither does it appear in accounts of the battle deriving from Ephorus, who wrote in the 4th century and who himself drew upon a contemporary poem about the battle by Simonides. To my knowledge, the only appearance of the phrase in all the ancient evidence about Thermopylae is in a work by Plutarch, writing in the early 2nd century AD: the Apophthegmata Lakonika (Sayings of Spartans), which is part of Plutarch’s Moralia. It is no. 11 out of fifteen sayings ascribed to Leonidas.
The Sayings of Spartans was not an original work by Plutarch himself, but a personal compilation of sayings already in circulation (perhaps already collected into earlier compilations) which Plutarch put together for his own purposes. How far back the sayings go varies from saying to saying. Some go back to the classical period and seem to be authentic sayings by historical characters. However, many appear to be later inventions created in the Hellenistic period.
Leonidas’ saying has a somewhat odd context. Unlike most sayings in Plutarch’s compilation, it is not a verbal saying, but a written response by letter to a letter from the Persian king Xerxes. In fact, it is Leonidas’ second response in a mini-exchange of letters initiated by Xerxes. The initial exchange between the two men is given in the previous Saying, no. 10. Leonidas’ “molon labe” in Saying no. 11 has the appropriate Spartan brevity in response to a brief three-word demand from Xerxes. In contrast, in no. 10 Xerxes’ letter and Leonidas’ response are both somewhat longer: Xerxes’ letter is 10 words long and Leonidas’ response is an incongruously verbose 24 words in ancient Greek. The exchange of letters is in itself peculiar, though not because Spartiates couldn’t read or write (they could). Oral communication via herald was a more normal mode of exchange and would have given greater public resonance to a dramatic assertion like “molon labe”.
In sum, the historical authenticity of the phrase “molon labe” is uncertain. One cannot prove that it is a later embroidering of the Leonidas legend; but its sole appearance in a late work which is known to contain many other inventions and its somewhat odd context in that work do not inspire confidence that it is genuinely historical.
ADDENDUM (8/10/13) (Added by Baldr Odinson): For a related article on how ancient Greeks did not carry their weapons in everyday life, "How the Ancient Greeks Viewed Weapons," see an article in the New Yorker, HERE. Selected quotes from that article:
The pioneers of citizen armies were also pioneers of withdrawing weapons from the places of civilized life. ...
But, even in these cities, it was believed that carrying weapons at home would be tantamount to letting weapons, not laws, rule. ...
This is the opposite of the view attributed to the Founding Fathers by the N.R.A.’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, in 2009, when he said that “our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.” On the contrary, letting the guys with weapons make the rules of ordinary life was the opposite of the classical practices that inspired the American founders..