Saturday, October 10, 2020

Not all Spartans were warriors

 Although Sparta is renowned for its military prowess, there were Spartan poets, sculptors, magistrates, ambassadors, and governors as well as soldiers.  Originally, however, full citizen Spartiates were barred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the Perioikoi, free peoples who did not enjoy full citizen-rights but were not subjected to the restrictions of helots.  Perioikoi served partly as a kind of military reserve, partly as skilled craftsmen and partly as agents of foreign trade - actually rather similar to the roles of freedmen in Roman society.

Spartans were prohibited from possessing gold and silver coins, and according to legend Spartan currency consisted of iron bars to discourage hoarding. It was not until the 260s or 250s BCE that Sparta began to mint its own coins. Though the conspicuous display of wealth appears to have been discouraged, this did not preclude the production of very fine decorated bronze, ivory and wooden works of art as well as exquisite jewelry.

Allegedly as part of the Lycurgan Reforms in the mid-8th century BCE, a massive land reform divided property into 9,000 equal portions. Each citizen received one estate, a kleros, which was expected to provide his living. The land was worked by helots who retained half the yield. From the other half, the Spartiate was expected to pay his mess (syssitia) fees, and the agoge fees for his children. However, we know nothing of matters of wealth such as how land was bought, sold, and inherited, or whether daughters received dowries. However, from early on there were marked differences of wealth within the state, and these became more serious after the law of Epitadeus some time after the Peloponnesian War, which removed the legal prohibition on the gift or bequest of land. By the mid-5th century, land had become concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of elite, and the notion that all Spartan citizens were equals had become an empty pretence. By Aristotle's day (384–322 BCE) citizenship had been reduced from 9,000 to less than 1,000, then further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV in 244 BCE.  In late Classical Sparta, when the male population was in serious decline, women were the sole owners of at least 35% of all land and property in Sparta.

Image: Bronze banqueter from the tripod-support of a bronze bowl thought to be Laconian (Spartan) 530-500 BCE from Dodona that I photographed at the British Museum in 2016.

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