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Educational “Moments”: Didactic Spectacle and the Bolstering of Spartan Socio-Political Structures in the Aftermath of War

Ellen Millender

Reed College

This paper will argue that the Spartans exploited the emotionally fraught aftermath of victory and defeat to stage didactic spectacles, which aimed to bolster their socio-political structures and the ideology of cooperative sociability that underpinned the Spartan politeia (see, esp., Hodkinson  2005: 258-63; 2006: 128-29). The engagement of Spartan hoplites – against fellow Greeks or barbarians – itself constituted a stage on which the Spartans demonstrated their values at work, as Thucydides demonstrates in his account of their advance at Mantinea in 418 (5.69.2-70) and Xenophon shows in his praise for their attention to the sensory aspects of battle (Lac. Pol. 13.8; cf. Hell. 4.2.20; Powell 1989: 179-80). Given the Spartans’ appreciation of the performative nature of such warfare, it is not surprising that they paid equal attention to the lessons that war could be made to teach in the aftermath of success, as at Plataea, and loss, as at Thermopylae in 480 and Sphacteria in 425.

In his treatment of the battle of Plataea in 479, Herodotus recounts the Spartiate commander Pausanias’ activities after the Hellenes’ victory over the Persians. Particularly memorable here is Pausanias’ refusal to follow the Aeginetan Lampon’s advice to defile Mardonius (9.78-79). After recording the wealth of gold and silver objects acquired and divided up by the Greeks – with a large proportion going to Pausanias (9.80-81), Herodotus describes the Persian banquet that Pausanias ostensibly staged in order to demonstrate the absurdity of the Persians’ attempt to rob the Greeks of their poverty (9.82).

Both vignettes have figured prominently in scholarship on Pausanias’ reputed medism (cf. Schieber 1980; Evans 1988), since their portrayal differs drastically from Thucydides’ portrait of the regent’s transformation into a Persian tyrant (1.128.3-135.1). Other scholars have focused on the dichotomy that Pausanias constructs between Persian and Greek customs with regard to bodily mutilation (cf. Hartog 1988: 142-3, 155). Such studies, however, have overlooked the most striking aspect of these passages, namely, their didactic quality. While Pausanias lauds the Greeks’ superior treatment of the human body, far more interesting is his protestation against Lampon’s attempt to exalt him and earn him unprecedented renown (9.78.2-3). In his claim that he only desires to “please the Spartans by righteous deeds and speech” (9.79.2), Pausanias reflects the Spartans’ privileging of the collective over the individual and bolsters the ideology of the Homoioi. As he later stages his Persian banquet, Pausanias likewise validates the egalitarian ethic that lay at the heart of Sparta’s famed eunomia (cf. Cartledge 2001: 162) – however much it may have been negated by the continuing influence of wealth and birth in Spartan society. Even though Herodotus claims that Pausanias staged this display of barbarian luxury for the other Greek commanders (9.82.2-3), the regent’s rejection of Persian gold and silver would have mapped well onto the Spartans’ increasing concerns about the corrosive affect of the spoils of war (cf. 9.80-81) on the very fabric of their society (cf., esp., Hodkinson 1983).

Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae reveals that a heroic defeat could prove just as useful a moment for celebrating Spartan values both among their fellow Greeks and back at home. One obviously didactic tool was the legendary epitaph at Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.228.2) that eulogized the obedience which Xenophon positioned at the very center of the Spartan politeia (esp. Lac. Pol. 8; cf. Humble 2006). Back at home the Spartans were treated to the spectacle of public shaming that survivors such as Aristodemus the “Trembler” suffered upon his return after Thermopylae (7.229-32). After the debacle on Sphacteria, the Spartans likewise witnessed the public humiliation of their compatriots – a powerful lesson in the socio-political dangers of cowardice that was only partially mitigated by the later restoration of these men to their former status (Thuc. 5.34.2). As in the case of Plataea, the aftermath of Thermopylae  and Sphacteria furnished Sparta with emotionally powerful opportunities to reinforce Spartan identity and values.

Session/Panel Title

Learning from War: Greek Responses to Victory and Defeat

Session/Paper Number

21.4

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