BMCR 2002.07.11

L’ordine delle generazioni. Classi di età e costumi matrimonali nell’antica Sparta. Pragmateiai: Collana di studi e testi per la storia economica, sociale e amministrava del mondo antico

, L'ordine delle generazioni : classi di età e costumi matrimoniali nell'antica Sparta. Pragmateiai ; 4. Bari: Edipuglia, 2000. 228 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8872282373 L.60,000.

This work is a revision of the author’s doctoral thesis of 1994 at the University of Naples (‘Federico II’). The introduction lays out the plan of the work: an intention to employ the Spartan conception of ‘generation’ in order to unlock the articulation of age-classes and the social practices surrounding marriage. This last point deserves particular notice because Spartan marriage has unsurprisingly been analyzed in recent years as a category of women’s social existence. Striking also in this work is the emphasis that Greek calculations of generational length reflect determinations on the appropriate age for marriage. Later in this work, this insight will be enriched by the incorporation of the issues of relief for tensions between successive generations and of mediation of anxieties over the matching of family assets and number of offspring.

The first chapter discusses the evidence about and the semantics within the system of age-classes. Here the issue of conflicting descriptive language, especially the mixture in our source material of Spartan technical vocabulary and other words in general historiographical usage, is squarely confronted. Recent students of the age-classes have been C.M. Tazelaar ( Mnem. 1967), S. Hodkinson ( Chiron 1983), and D.-A. Kukofka ( Philologus 1993), whose conclusions are skillfully explored by Lupi. A main interlocutor, however, is Nigel Kennell, whose book, The Gymnasium of Virtue, receives a strong and, on the whole, probative critique (cf. my review in CO [1996-97] 155). Yet, I would dissent from Lupi’s conclusion on the identity of the eirenes in order to consider them the last grade of the agôgê at or just before 20 years of age and not the hêbontes 20-30 (cf. Kennell 35-37). It was to this narrower group that the duty of supervising the paides was entrusted. Moreover, I would identify the oldest of the three traditional Spartan choruses as composed of men over 60, and not the thirty-year olds and above (e.g., Plut. Lyc. 21.3; cf. Lupi 42-43).

The next chapter covers a series of topics related to the social construction of the age bracket from twenty to thirty. One such is the possible separate burial of (e)irenes after the Greek victory at Plataia. This determination is dependent on a famous emendation of Herodotus 9.85, which I would reject on the basis of the problematic status it gives to the Spartan officer Amompharetos (cf. N. Richer CCG [1994] for a recent different reading of the passage). Another issue involves the legal distinguishing of the first ten year-classes as a separate group, not only militarily, as in Xen. HG 4.5.13-18 — which I think is somewhat overplayed — but also (more fruitfully, in my view) regarding the prohibition of this group’s economic involvement in the agora (Plut. Lyc. 25.1-2). The author deftly juxtaposes here the Theban law that barred office-holding to anyone who had not abstained from the agora (= banausic activity) for ten years (Aris. Pol. 1278a25-26). A third point is made around a comparison of the imperfect civic status of men 20-30 with the impaired status of those degraded for military deficiencies ( tresantes). The chapter closes by examining Leonidas’ selection of the 300 Spartiates from more mature men for the Thermopylai campaign for the light it sheds on the Spartan conceptualization of the (mostly?) excluded 20-30-year olds.

In his third chapter, Lupi considers “antropologia del matrimonio spartano”. He starts from a controversial citation of Hagnon of Tarsus that is contained in Athenaeus (602d-e). He comes down on the side of K.J. Dover and others who see there a reference to a Spartan practice of premarital sexual contact (anally or intercrurally) with parthenoi‘maidens’, comparable to their well-attested intimacy with paidika‘adolescent passive sexual partners’. He supports this conclusion by adducing an explanation in Photius of the term kusolakôn (‘pro-Spartan traitor by the anus’?). This custom may be equated with Spartan marriage ritual through harpagê‘seizure’ (note Plut. Lyc. 15.3), in which the bride is assimilated to an adolescent male (for one thing, through close shaving of the head and transvestitism). Lupi wraps these testimonia into a hypothesis of an initial period in Spartan marriage of “crypto-matrimony,” affecting adolescent girls, and continuing until the husband reached 30. He continues to note that diametrically opposed constructions of this life stage are presented by pro-Spartan and anti-Spartan, Atticizing traditions. The abductions of adolescent females and males in Crete (FGH 70 F 149.20-21) and Spartan marriage by seizure may be seen as parallel. The chapter then tests the conjectural crypto-matrimony against the remaining source material on Spartan marriage.

This reconstruction is very sensitive to our placement in time of the period of the pseudo-pederastic relations, whether they occurred extra-maritally between adolescent girls and youths in the last year grades of the agôgê (the strictest parallel), in crypto-marriage, as Lupi argues, or between young adult women and men 20-30 in a premarital phase which some might characterize as a trial union. Even if one rejected any form of marriage for Spartan adolescent females (as I am inclined) on the basis of the portrayals of vigorous and mature young mothers at Sparta, I suppose that one could postpone the crypto-marital phase. Although its isolation mitigates any impact, our sole anecdote on a Spartan girl becoming pregnant out of wedlock (Plut. Mor. 242C) does not appear to reflect crypto-marriage (cf. Lupi n. 74, p. 86), but it could indicate quasi-licit sexual experimentation.

In chapter four, “Generazioni,” the discussion opens with an argument that the evidence for the early visitations of young Spartan men and women better approximates a process of kiltgang‘nocturnal visitation’ (or experimental sexuality, akin to colonial American ‘bundling’). A similar pattern is attested for Samos, where it is mythologically grounded in premarital relations between Zeus and Hera. These practices involve passages or even transmissions of power between generations, for which the culturally established distance between generations was significant (as seen in eligibility for the gerousia and in the punishment of the celibate and late-marrying Spartiates). The author then presents several African parallels for such a system. One of the strengths of this work is the consistent adducing of parallel anthropological scholarship, which is presented with a feeling for its suggestive or provocative nature without demanding probative force for any analogues.

Nevertheless, one might object that this hypothesis goes beyond our sources in making the siring of children before thirty years of age not only practically difficult (owing to the absence of cohabitation) but also positively improper. Here I am skeptical. It may well be likely that the eugenic aspects of the sparing sexual intercourse of the Spartan newlyweds were not conceptualized “scientifically” before the Classical period. Yet, experimentation with the breeding of animals had probably established this folk belief long before. In that light, Plutarch’s comment (Lyc. 15.5; cf. Critias fr. 32 DK; Xen. Lac. Pol. 1.6) that separation rendered the newlyweds gonimoi‘fertile’ physically suggests that (at the least) children engendered by fathers younger than 30 were sought after (and not just accidents or unwelcome). Moreover, it is important to distinguish between the categories and ideas with which the Spartans opted to think about maturation, procreation, and aging — about which Lupi’s investigation is particularly provocative — and the messier realities involving not only male and female infertility, fetal nonviability, illnesses of pregnancy, and heavy infant and childhood mortality but also imperatives for personal decision-making created by the resultant unpredictability to which the Spartans had to adjust in order to sustain lineages. Healthy sons born to fathers younger than thirty were very unlikely to have been rejected.

However, on the basis of his treatment of the topic of children born from fathers younger than thirty, Lupi chooses a bold course for advancing his argument. His basis is an analysis of the well-known (and unique) passage in the Plutarch Lycurgus 16.1 describing the examination of neonates by tribal elders that led to their rearing or exposure. That illegitimate children could be exposed is one conclusion that is buttressed by noting the assimilation of the illegitimate to the deformed. Also enlisted in support are various discussions of the right age for procreation, such as Xen. Mem. 4.4.22-23, Plato Rep. 459a-461e, Aris. Pol. 1334b29-1335a35, 1335b26-38, and testimonia about the Pythagoreans. I should note that the very elaboration of the apparatus for procreation of the Guardians in the Republic ought to warn that family planning was actually rather chaotic in practice so that conceptualizations of procreative aspirations (whether elite or folk) can hardly be taken as more than motivating influences. That the philosophical discussions are derived from Laconizing contexts rather than from a matrix of panhellenic popular beliefs is most improbable. The festival of the Hyakinthia is then advanced as the occasion for the review of the newly born by the tribal elders. But is it likely that exposure could possibly have been delayed for the interval until the next celebration of the Hyakinthia occurred? Despite my skepticism, it is worth emphasis that the author has reminded us that the scrutiny of babies by Spartan elders is unlikely to have been a clinical procedure, but a process shot through with assorted folk beliefs about health, sexuality, gestation, and parturition. Among them there could perhaps stand a concern for generational separation.

The subjects of chapter six are inheritance and intergenerational successions, where Lupi inclines against the existence (at any stage) of a system of inalienable, equivalent lots of civic land and in favor of a pattern of normal land holding and partible inheritance of real property. He is sensibly doubtful, however, about the view that all the evidence in favor of the former can be dismissed as a retrojection from Hellenistic Spartan reform proposals and, accordingly, is not so nonchalant about discarding as unhistorical the legislation of the ephor Epitadeus (Plut. Agis 5.3-4). Instead he integrates the transmission of property into his understanding of the neonatal scrutiny and the significance of the passage of the threshold of thirty years of age by hypothesizing that young men became co-proprietors with their ascendants at 30, with specific relevance to an arkhaia moira earmarked by their fathers at the initial scrutiny. Demographic simulation of the Spartan population indicates a relatively restricted number of thirty-year-olds with living fathers. This hypothesis does have the interesting, and very possibly troubling, implication that men 20-30 did not pay mess dues, for they lacked the moira, the appropriate property for doing so. Our author’s approach has some affinities (as he recognizes) with the “single heir” hypothesis concerning the transmission of Spartan property (cf. Figueira, TAPA 1986 166-67,184-87). While it is appealing on many counts, it is unlikely to persuade without engendering reservations on the part of those who (like myself) insist that only a hypothesis including an Archaic distribution of the majority of non-local Spartan territory among klêroi and a considerable period of intergenerational transmission of property through communal intermediation will satisfy the record of the sources and the attested demographic and economic dynamics of the Classical Spartan polis.

The final chapter applies Lupi’s paradigm to several problems of Archaic Spartan history, starting with a fresh look at the role of the so-called Partheniai in the foundation of the Spartan colony Taras. Next the author approaches the demographic ramifications of his theoretical process of generational succession. Here he recognizes that his hypothesis has grave implications as it might imply demographic entropy and (I would add) an increasing disparity of property holding from the outset of the system of klêroi. Hence Lupi suggests a significant Dark Age and early Archaic expansion of population followed by a sixth-century imposition of the protocols that he has hypothesized as a demographic control mechanism. This supposition would have to contend against the evidence suggesting that an expansion of Spartan numbers characterized the entire period 600-465 ( TAPA 1986 170-75). And I am not so confident that early demographic conditions were quite so expansionary as the authorities that are utilized here (cf. my Aegina 47-52). It is also argued that the inauguration of Spartiate pederasty in its Classical manifestation belongs to the same context.

Nonetheless, Lupi’s reconstruction does allow him to contrast additionally the mid-sixth-century Spartan statesman, Chilon, who is characterized as a Malthusian, with the lineage of the Aigiadai, who exemplify in mythical and symbolic terms “populazionisti”, representing a belief in a unity between increasing population and increasing power. The qualification of the former is justified by the episode in Herodotus where Chilon advises Hippokrates, the father of Peisistratos, not to sire a son, while the author’s vision of the latter derives from their connection with colonization, their generative misadventures, and their association with Laios, father of Oedipus. These are intriguing formulations concerning which our final judgments will ultimately depend on our resolution of the complexities of the interactions between the population of Lakônikê and its resource base (cf. Figueira forthcoming, in N. Luraghi & S. Alcock, Helots and their Masters).

An epilogue treats two topics: 1) the case of the marriage of the Hellenistic Spartan king Akrotatos with Khilonides as illustrative of this work’s main arguments, and 2) the oracle warning the Spartans against allowing their leadership to be lamed. This work closes with an index locorum and a detailed table of contents. The absence of an index for proper nouns and subjects is to be deplored. The bibliography is solid and there is a fine use of preceding scholarship throughout.

Because of the high level of articulation of the Spartan social order, interpretation of superficially discrete aspects of Laconian society are tightly interlaced in practical investigations faced with evidentiary deficiencies. A strong point of this work is the way in which generational succession at Sparta is seen to have had interconnections with other social processes. Although I would differ on individual points of interpretation, the sensitivity of this work to the ramifications of maturation and marriage as well as its specific contributions render it well worth our attention.