BMCR 1999.10.15

Aristokraten und Damoden. Untersuchungen zur inneren Entwickelung Spartas im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und zur politischen Funktion der Dichtung des Tyrtaios

, Aristokraten und Damoden : Untersuchungen zur inneren Entwicklung Spartas im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und zur politischen Funktion der Dichtung des Tyrtaios. Stuttgart: Steiner, 1998. 347 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9783515074308 DM 144.

It had to happen: after decades of scholarly effort to make its history and society less of an anomaly, archaic Sparta has finally been declared ‘even more normal than other communities’. These are the closing words of Mischa Meier’s Aristokraten und Damoden, the book of a very recent thesis which easily meets the criteria of demonstrating the author’s scholarship and originality, and poses a series of important questions about seventh-century Sparta. Unfortunately, I find many of its answers quite unconvincing. Before I launch into the discussion, it is only fair to declare an interest: I have an article in press on pretty much the same subject, and have previously published on two other subjects which also play a significant part in Meier’s argument, Homeric society and early Greek warfare, so that on almost all of the questions tackled in his book I cannot help but be exceptionally opinionated.

In outline, Meier’s reconstruction of early Spartan history runs as follows. In the eighth and early seventh century BC, the community was dominated by an elite of wealth (not of birth, but nevertheless loosely called an ‘aristocracy’ because it had a distinct style of life, 18-19), which was organized into informal bands of drinking companions ( hetaireiai) and into ‘secret societies’ ( Geheimbünde) of the kind often encountered by anthropologists, exclusive and prestigious male cult associations. The aristocratic bands energetically raided neighbouring territories, provoking the First Messenian War — dated to c. 700-680 or 690-670 BC — which was an essentially ‘private’ conflict between aristocrats from either side of the border and led to only partial annexation. The secret societies, meanwhile, abused their traditional, informal role in the administration of justice ( Rügerecht) and resorted to plundering, raping, and killing fellow-Spartans. The common people, suffering both these depredations and the counter-raids of the Messenians, resisted, and rivalries within the aristocracy added to the tension. The first crisis came near the end of the war, when the poet Terpander intervened to effect a reconciliation. A second crisis occurred c. 660-50 BC, when the Parthenioi, a disgruntled aristocratic group, possibly one of the secret societies, attempted a coup but failed and emigrated to settle Taras.

A major reform, promulgated in the Great Rhetra, followed around 650 BC. It reduced division within Sparta and gave the common people a formal role in politics while preserving aristocratic domination; it also provided the basis for the creation of a citizen army. Yet tensions persisted, and when the new citizen phalanx was mobilized to suppress a revolt by the Messenians, c. 640-30 BC, there were popular demands for a redistribution of land. The elite diverted these demands into a drive to occupy the rest of Messenia. During the war, the poetry of Tyrtaeus helped forge a new sense of citizen identity and of the primacy of the ‘common good’, and after the final victory, c. 600 BC, the Spartans closed ranks against the subjected Messenians and began to create a new regime of Eunomia. This involved the ‘domestication’ of aristocratic organisations: the secret societies were secularised and turned outward to form the notorious krypteia, while private drinking groups were subject to increasing restraints and slowly superseded by public messes. In the course of the sixth century these changes produced the notion that all Spartans were equal, and by the end of the fifth century the whole regime had come to be attributed to the legendary Lycurgus.

Meier’s version of early Spartan history is eventful and exciting indeed and offers a blend of the conventional and the unusual which is at first sight quite appealing. Its main virtue lies in focusing on the social structure of Sparta as the key to understanding political and military change. When investigating changes in warfare, for instance, he helpfully concentrates on the nature of military organization, rather than on introduction of hoplite armour and the phalanx formation with which much of the debate has traditionally been preoccupied. With most of the contemporary evidence Meier deals rather well, and his analysis of Spartan aristocratic culture (18-44) is certainly worth reading, even if it contains some minor oddities. (I have great difficulty swallowing pea-soup as an aristocratic prestige food [65-6], which is surely just the opposite of what Alkman says [F17 Page].) His long discussion of citizen ideology in Tyrtaeus, ‘an aristocrat in civic garb’ (236), is also important, despite a whimsical reading of the fragments of Eunomia which involves, among other things, the gratuitous deletion of the last two lines of F4 West (246-7) and the interpretation of F2 West as if it stated Sparta’s claim to rule the Peloponnese, when it so obviously states instead the kings’ claim to rule Sparta (253-8). Several important parts of Meier’s case, however, seem to me really very weak, especially where he draws on stories and institutions of classical, or later, date.

Take his most striking innovation, the secret societies. He substantiates the idea that these existed and played a crucial historical role with three arguments: (a) secret societies are attested as an Indoeuropean phenomenon and therefore, even if there is no direct evidence for them in Sparta, ‘we may nevertheless assume that such societies played a central role in daily life, especially in the archaic period’ (151); (b) two classical stories about archaic events may refer to their activities (151-4); (c) the classical krypteia is best understood as derived from earlier secret societies (154-70). The first argument, of course, has no force. Even if one accepts the notion that there are institutions shared by all Indoeuropeans, and even if one further accepts that the occurrence of secret societies among Germanic tribes and Persians (142-50) makes them such an Indoeuropean institution — two Big Ifs — there is no reason to suppose that this Ur -phenomenon still existed in seventh-century Sparta. Of the two stories adduced, one is the tale of the Parthenioi (Strabo 6.3.2-3) which tells us that the plotters were mostly young men who on the day of the coup somehow identified themselves by means of headgear (153-4). Only the eye of faith can see this as evidence of secret society membership. The second story is the Messenian version of the first clash between themselves and the Spartans (Pausanias 4.4.3), which features a surprise attack by young Spartans in female dress, suggestive of the mix of ritual transvestism and terror tactics which secret societies have been known to practice (151-3). Unfortunately, this tale is clearly a later invention rather than an authentic tradition about archaic practice: the Spartan version claimed that the Messenians had started it all by attacking a group of Spartan women (Pausanias 4.4.2), and the Messenian story was invented as an answer to this charge: the ‘women’ killed had been youths in disguise, not helpless victims but devious aggressors.

Meier himself, in fact, concedes that the only argument which carries much weight is his third, that one can find traces of the original secret societies in the classical krypteia (154). But even this is fatally undermined by its corollary, that the krypteia as we know it lacked most characteristics of a secret society since it was deprived of these in the process of its sixth-century ‘domestication’ (208-16). This amounts to the creation of history out of thin air: first one posits an archaic form of social organization for which there is no evidence, and then one posits a major transformation to explain why there is no evidence. The procedure may not be unprecedented, but that does not make it valid. Secret societies, we are told, typically have initiation rituals and common cults, and enjoy a kind of supernatural status which entitles them to their role in upholding common law within the community (146-9). The krypteia, however, had none of these ‘constituent elements’ (168), except that the participants were allowed to kill helots and steal supplies. As for the licence to kill, all Meier has to offer is one sentence with the deeply questionable assertion that it ‘sicherlich’ pre-dated the creation of helots, and that it was ‘natürlich’ fellow-Spartans who were the original victims (167). He makes more of a case for the secret-society origins of the licence to steal (164-7), but overlooks that this was extended not only to the kryptoi but to boys at all stages of their education (Xenophon, Lak. Pol. 2; Plutarch, Lycurgus 17). The argument will thus only work if one is prepared to trace the entire agoge back to secret societies, and to envisage marauding gangs of seven-year olds terrorizing early Sparta in the company of their older brothers.

The problems with the second main plank of Meier’s argument, the transformation of the military and social functions of aristocratic drinking groups, are of a different kind. As I noted above, it is good to have an attempt to pinpoint these key historical changes: the replacement of symposia by public syssitia and the conversion of Homeric-style armies comprised of leaders and their bands of personal followers into state-organized forces. Meier puts the turning point for both developments around 650 BC, when, he argues, the syssitia were introduced as part of the new military units provided for by the Great Rhetra (119-20, 196-7, 217). Symposia long continued to exist alongside the public messes, which only began to assume their later dominance in the course of the sixth century (42-3, 216-21). In outline, this is a tenable position, although I myself would not accept this date for the Rhetra (see below) and do not find Herodotus’ attribution of the messes to the military reforms of Lycurgus (1.65.5) a good reason to connect the syssitia with the Rhetra. In detail, however, Meier’s picture of military changes relies on a selective and superficial reading of Homer.

He is particularly selective in taking a single private raiding expedition in the Odyssey as the model for all early warfare (101), when, as Oswyn Murray pointed out almost twenty years ago, and as I have sought to show in my own work, there clearly is such a thing as community warfare in the epics.1 His unrepresentative picture is reinforced by a no less selective reading of Pausanias’ stories about the First Messenian War. These are probably best not used at all, but if they are going to be used, it is simply not legitimate to say that their clear statements of the public nature of the conflict ‘cannot erase the impression’ that it was private, after all (86-7, 102-6). Similarly, only a superficial reading of Homer will support Meier’s view that war bands consisted exclusively of aristocrats, and that aristocratic champions decided battles. He is aware of the influential work of Joachim Latacz demonstrating that even in the Iliad the masses are mobilized and ultimately play a decisive military role, but he counters that it is the heroes who are constantly in the foreground and with whom the audience empathizes, while the masses are despised (232-4). This entirely misses the point: Homer shows the masses in action and occasionally gives them their due despite hints of contempt for the common man and the highlighting of aristocratic heroes (for both literary and ideological reasons), which goes to show just how significant was the role of the multitude.2 Meier’s interpretation of military changes, then, seems to me inaccurate, and provides no basis for his image of the common Spartan passively suffering the effects of the First Messenian War, but finding his voice when actively drawn into the Second War.

Finally, I would draw attention to the unconventional arguments which lie behind a couple of the key dates adopted in this book. With many other scholars, Meier argues that the Great Rhetra must pre-date Tyrtaeus’ Eunomia. This is odd, because, unlike these other scholars, Meier deletes the lines which seem to echo the Rhetra most closely, and indeed argues that Tyrtaeus’ poem studiously avoids mentioning any of the Rhetra’s most significant clauses (207). His reasoning seems to be, then, that the Rhetra must be pre-date Tyrtaeus because the poet does not refer to it. As it happens, I would agree (on other grounds) that Tyrtaeus does not allude to the Rhetra, but, if so, the more logical conclusion is that we cannot derive a date for the law from the poem (and a case can be made that it post-dates the poem3).

As a terminus post quem, Meier offers the date of the Parthenioi-affair, which, he believes, was just the sort of conflict which inspired the Rhetra’s legislation. This is not a strong argument in itself, but more significant is the weakness of his dating for the affair. Meier shows quite well that the late eighth-century date usually given for the Spartan settlement at Taras is not necessarily correct (137-41), but proceeds to base his revised date on the story, which he rejects as mere fiction (125-6), that the Parthenioi were born during the First Messenian War so that their attempted coup must be dated a generation later. Why one would accept a date while denying the historicity of the information from which it is derived, I fail to see. Almost as strange is the supporting argument that the Olympic victor lists confirm a date of c. 650 BC for the Rhetra (31-5, 187): this supports a problematic assumption (that the elite would turn to sport when their political power was slightly reduced) with a dubious use of statistics (is an increase from 18 victors in 720-650 to 26 in 650-580 significant?) applied to unreliable data (even if the lists are genuine, they are not a complete record or random sample) in an arbitrary manner (why draw the dividing line at 650 in the first place?).

It is no mean feat to write, without being repetitive, more than 300 densely printed pages on a place and period so poorly attested, and Meier deserves credit for trying to do something exciting and of undoubted importance. The result, however, is sadly marred by a cavalier use of evidence, and in the end succeeds only in replacing one Spartan mirage with another.


1. Oswyn Murray, Early Greece (1980), 53-4; Hans van Wees, Status Warriors (1992), 167-207.

2. Joachim Latacz, Kampfparänese, Kampfdarstellung und Kampfwirklichkeit in der Ilias, bei Kallinos und Tyrtaios (1977); Hans van Wees, ‘Kings in combat’, CQ 38 (1988), 1-24. In my view, there is a disjunction between drinking groups and war bands in Homer: see ‘Princes at dinner’, in Homeric Questions, ed. J.-P. Crielaard (1995), 168-74.

3. For this view, see Van Wees, ‘Tyrtaeus’ Eunomia : Nothing to do with the Great Rhetra’, in Sparta: New Perspectives, ed. A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (1999, forthcoming), 1-41.