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jeudi, 30 octobre 2014

Grèce : « Les murailles de feu »

Grèce : « Les murailles de feu »

Ex: http://fortune.fdesouche.com
Dans ce roman historique nous suivons le déroulement de la vie d’un jeune Grec, Xéon, dont la Cité, Astakos, va être détruite et la population massacrée. Confronté à cette situation terrible, lors de laquelle il perd ses parents alors qu’il n’est âgé que de dix ans, il prend la décision de devenir un guerrier et de rejoindre la Cité grecque la plus réputée sur ce point: Sparte.
 

Ce faisant, il va être mêlé à une fabuleuse page de l’histoire antique se déroulant en 480 avant notre ère, pendant l’invasion de la Grèce par le roi de Perse Xerxès, fils de Darius: la bataille du défilé des Thermopyles.

Six jours durant, sous le regard des dieux, cet étroit passage sera le théâtre de combats sans merci, lors de laquelle trois cents spartiates et quatre mille combattants grecs d’autres cités vont opposer une résistance farouche aux armées de l’empire perse.

Celles-ci rassemblant, selon l’historien Hérodote, deux millions d’hommes, traversèrent l’Hellespont, c’est-à-dire l’actuel détroit des Dardanelles, afin d’envahir et asservir la Grèce. Racontée par un survivant, c’est ce choc inégal – et, au-delà, toute l’histoire et la vie quotidienne de Sparte – que fait revivre Steven Pressfield dans ce roman traversé par «un formidable souffle d’authenticité».
L’objectif n’est pas seulement de rappeler cette page guerrière de l’histoire mais également de porter un regard sur la Grèce Antique, les Cités grecques et leur indépendance les unes par rapport aux autres, qui conduisait d’ailleurs celles-ci à se livrer des guerres incessantes.

Ainsi, nous apprenons les règles de vie très strictes et martiales de la Cité spartiate. La vie des hommes et des femmes n’était réglée que par rapport à l’organisation militaire et à la guerre, du moins en ce qui concerne ceux qui étaient considérés comme les Citoyens. Il n’y a apparemment aucun doute sur l’importance de cette Cité à cette époque et l’exemple qu’elle pouvait donner au reste du monde antique.

L’auteur a pris comme trame la vie d’un jeune homme qui ne pouvait prétendre devenir l’un de ces guerriers spartiates mais qui en revanche les a servis et approchés de près. Cette astuce permet à l’auteur de nous livrer à la fois une vision extérieure et une vision intérieure sur la philosophie martiale animant cette Cité, dressant ainsi un portrait saisissant, fruit d’une érudition certaine et d’une recherche documentaire approfondie.

La bataille du défilé des Thermopyles étant une glorieuse page de l’histoire de la Grèce (les trois cents spartiates étant morts jusqu’au dernier), cela donne au roman un souffle épique indéniable. En effet, trois cents Spartiates et leurs alliés y retinrent les envahisseurs pendant six jours. Puis, leurs armes brisées, décimés, ils furent contraints de se battre “avec leurs dents et leurs mains nues“, selon Hérodote, avant d’être enfin vaincus.

Les Spartiates et leurs alliés béotiens de Thespies moururent jusqu’au dernier, mais le modèle de courage que constitua leur sacrifice incita les Grecs à s’ unir. Au printemps et à l’automne de cette année-là, leur coalition défit les Perses à Salamine et à Platée. Ainsi furent préservées les ébauches de la démocratie et de la liberté occidentale.

Deux mémoriaux se dressent aujourd’hui aux Thermopyles. L’un, moderne, appelé “monument à Léonidas”, en l’honneur du roi spartiate qui mourut là, porte gravée sa réponse à Xerxes qui lui ordonnait de déposer les armes. Réponse laconique : Molon labe (“viens les prendre”).

L’autre, ancien, est une simple stèle qui porte également gravée les paroles du poète Simonide :

Passant, va dire aux Spartiates
Que nous gisons ici pour obéir à leurs lois.

Hérodote écrit dans ses Histoires : “Tout le corps des spartiates et des Thespiens fit preuve d’un courage extraordinaire, mais le plus brave de tous fut de l’avis général le Spartiate Dienekès. On rapporte que, à la veille de la bataille, un habitant de Trachis lui déclara que les archers perses étaient si nombreux que, lorsqu’ils décrochaient leurs flèches, le soleil en était obscurci. “Bien, répondit Dienekès, nous nous battrons donc à l’ombre.

«On finit ce livre essoufflé d’avoir combattu au coude à coude. C’est ce que j’appelle un roman homérique.» – Pat Conroy

Extrait 1: Le contraire de la peur (Trouvé sur le blog de notre lecteur Boreas)

medium_anciens_Grecs_sepia.jpgTandis que les autres chasseurs festoyaient autour de leurs feux, Dienekès fit place à ses côtés à Alexandros et Ariston et les pria de s’asseoir. Je devinai son intention. Il allait leur parler de la peur. Car il savait qu’en dépit de leur réserve, ces jeunes gens sans expérience de la bataille se rongeaient à la perspective des épreuves prochaines.

— Toute ma vie, commença-t-il, une question m’a hanté : quel est le contraire de la peur ?

La viande de sanglier était prête, nous mourions de faim et l’on nous apporta nos portions. Suicide vint, portant des bols pour Dienekès, Alexandros, Ariston, lui même, le servant d’Ariston, Démade et moi. Il s’assit par terre, près de Dienekès. Deux chiens, qui connaissaient sa générosité notoire à leur égard, prirent place de part et d’autre de Suicide, attendant des reliefs.

— Lui donner le nom de manque de peur, aphobie, n’a pas de sens. Ce ne serait là qu’un mot, une thèse exprimée comme antithèse. Je veux savoir quel est vraiment le contraire de la peur, comme le jour est le contraire de la nuit et le ciel est l’opposé de la terre.

— Donc tu voudrais que ce fût un terme positif, dit Ariston.

— Exactement !

Dienekès hocha la tête et dévisagea les deux jeunes gens. L’écoutaient-ils ? Se souciaient-ils de ce qu’il disait ? S’intéressaient-ils vraiment comme lui à ce sujet ?

— Comment surmonte-t-on la peur de la mort, la plus élémentaire des peurs, celle qui circule dans notre sang comme dans tout être vivant, homme ou bête ?

Il montra les chiens qui encadraient Suicide.

— Les chiens en meute ont le courage d’attaquer un lion. Chaque animal connaît sa place. Il craint l’animal qui lui est supérieur et se fait craindre de son inférieur. C’est ainsi que nous, Spartiates, tenons en échec la peur de la mort : par la peur plus grande du déshonneur. Et de l’exclusion de la meute.

Suicide jeta deux morceaux aux chiens. Leurs mâchoires happèrent promptement la viande dans l’herbe, le plus fort des deux s’assurant le plus gros morceau. Dienekès eut un sourire sarcastique.

— Mais est-ce là du courage ? La peur du déshonneur n’est-elle pas essentiellement l’expression de la peur ?

Alexandros lui demanda ce qu’il cherchait.

— Quelque chose de plus noble. Une forme plus élevée du mystère. Pure. Infaillible.

Il déclara que pour toutes les autres questions, l’on pouvait interroger les dieux.

— Mais pas en matière de courage. Qu’est-ce qu’ils nous apprendraient ? Ils ne peuvent pas mourir. Leurs âmes ne sont pas, comme les nôtres, enfermées dans ceci, dit-il en indiquant son corps. L’atelier de la peur.

» Vous autres, les jeunes, reprit-il, vous vous imaginez qu’avec leur longue expérience de la guerre, les vétérans ont dominé la peur. Mais nous la ressentons aussi fortement que vous. Plus fortement, même, parce que nous en avons une expérience plus intime. Nous vivons avec la peur vingt-quatre heures par jour, dans nos tendons et dans nos os. Pas vrai, ami ?

Suicide eut un sourire entendu. Mon maître sourit aussi.

— Nous forgeons notre courage sur place. Nous en tirons la plus grande part de sentiments secondaires. La peur de déshonorer la cité, le roi, les héros de nos lignées. La peur de ne pas nous montrer dignes de nos femmes et de nos enfants, de nos frères, de nos compagnons d’armes. Je connais bien tous les trucs de la respiration et de la chanson. Je sais comment affronter mon ennemi et me convaincre qu’il a encore plus peur que moi. C’est possible. Mais la peur reste présente.

Il observa que ceux qui veulent dominer leur peur de la mort disent souvent que l’âme ne meurt pas avec le corps.

— Mais pour moi, ça ne veut rien dire. Ce sont des fables. D’autres, et surtout les Barbares, disent aussi que, lorsque nous mourons, nous allons au paradis. S’ils le croient vraiment, je me demande pourquoi ils n’abrègent pas leur voyage et ne se suicident pas sur-le-champ.

Alexandros demanda s’il y avait quelqu’un de la cité qui témoignait du vrai courage viril.

— Dans tout Sparte, c’est Polynice qui s’en approche le plus, répondit Dienekès. Mais je trouve que même son courage est imparfait. Il ne se bat pas par peur du déshonneur, mais par désir de gloire. C’est sans doute noble et moins bas, mais est-ce que c’est vraiment le courage ?

Ariston demanda alors si le vrai courage existait.

— Ce n’est pas une fiction, dit encore Dienekès avec force. Le vrai courage, je l’ai vu. Mon frère Iatroclès l’avait par moments. Quand cette grâce le possédait, j’en étais saisi. Elle rayonnait de façon sublime. Il se battait alors non comme un homme, mais comme un dieu. Léonidas a parfois aussi ce type de courage, mais pas Olympias. Ni moi, ni personne d’entre nous ici. Il sourit. Vous savez qui possède cette forme pure du courage plus que tout autre que j’aie connu ?

Personne ne lui répondit.

— Ma femme.

Et se tournant vers Alexandros :

— Et ta mère, Paraleia. Ça me semble significatif. Le courage supérieur réside, il me semble, dans ce qui est féminin.

On voyait que ça lui faisait du bien de parler de tout cela. Il remercia ses auditeurs de l’avoir écouté.

— Les Spartiates n’aiment pas ces analyses, poursuivit-il. Je me rappelle avoir demandé à mon frère, en campagne, un jour qu’il s’était battu comme un immortel, ce qu’il avait ressenti au fond de lui. Il m’a regardé comme si j’étais devenu fou. Et il m’a répondu : « Un peu moins de philosophie, Dienekès, et un peu plus d’ardeur. » Autant pour moi ! conclut Dienekès en riant.

Il détourna le visage, comme pour mettre un point final à ces considérations. Puis son regard revint à Ariston, dont le visage exprimait cette tension que les jeunes éprouvent quand il leur faut parler devant des aînés.

— Eh bien, parle donc, lui lança Dienekès.

— Je pensais au courage des femmes. Je crois qu’il est différent de celui des hommes. Il hésita. Son expression semblait dire qu’il craignait de paraître présomptueux à parler de choses dont il n’avait pas l’expérience. Mais Dienekès le pressa :

— De quelle façon différent ?

Ariston jeta un coup d’œil à Alexandros, qui l’encouragea à parler. Le jeune homme prit donc son souffle :

— Le courage de l’homme quand il donne sa vie pour son pays est grand, mais il n’est pas extraordinaire. Est-ce que ce n’est pas dans la nature des mâles, que ce soient des animaux ou des humains, de s’affronter et de se battre ? C’est ce que nous sommes nés pour faire, c’est dans notre sang. Regarde n’importe quel petit garçon. Avant même qu’il ait appris à parler, l’instinct le pousse à s’emparer du bâton et de l’épée, alors que ses sœurs répugnent à ces instruments de conflit et préfèrent prendre dans leur giron un petit chat ou une poupée.

Qu’est-ce qui est plus naturel pour un homme que de se battre et pour une femme, que d’aimer ? Est ce que ce n’est pas l’injonction physique de la femme que de donner et de nourrir, surtout quand il s’agit du fruit de ses entrailles, ces enfants qu’elle a accouchés dans la douleur ? Nous savons tous qu’une lionne ou une louve risquera sa vie sans hésiter pour sauver ses rejetons. Les femmes agissent de même. Alors, observez ce que nous appelons le courage des femmes.

Il reprit son haleine.

— Qu’est-ce qui pourrait être le plus contraire à la nature d’une femme et d’une mère que de regarder froidement ses fils aller à la mort ? Est-ce que toutes les fibres de son corps ne crient pas leur souffrance et leur révolte dans cette épreuve ? Est-ce que son cœur ne crie pas : non ! Pas mon fils ! Épargnez-le ! Le fait que les femmes arrivent à rassembler assez de courage pour faire taire leur nature la plus profonde est la raison pour laquelle nous admirons nos mères, nos sœurs et nos femmes. C’est cela, je crois, Dienekès, l’essence du courage féminin et la raison pour laquelle il est supérieur au courage masculin.

Mon maître hocha la tête. Mais Alexandros s’agita. On voyait qu’il n’était pas satisfait.

— Ce que tu as dit est vrai, Ariston. Je n’y avais jamais pensé. Mais il faut dire ceci. Si la supériorité des femmes tenait à ce qu’elles sont capables de rester impassibles quand leurs fils vont à la mort, cela en soi-même ne serait pas seulement contre nature, ce serait aussi grotesque et même monstrueux. Ce qui prête de la noblesse à leur comportement est qu’elles agissent ainsi au nom d’une cause plus élevée et désintéressée.

320546spartitae2.jpgCes femmes que nous admirons donnent les vies de leurs fils à leur pays, afin que leur nation puisse survivre, même si leurs fils périssent. Nous avons entendu depuis notre enfance l’histoire de cette mère qui, apprenant que ses cinq fils étaient morts à la guerre, a demandé : « Est-ce que nous avons gagné ? » Et, quand elle a appris que nous avions gagné, en effet, elle est retournée chez elle sans une larme et elle a dit : « Dans ce cas, je suis contente. » Est-ce que ce n’est pas cette noblesse-là qui nous émeut dans le sacrifice des femmes ?

— Tant de sagesse dans la bouche de la jeunesse ! s’écria Dienekès en riant.

Il donna une tape sur les épaules des deux garçons, puis ajouta :

— Mais tu n’as pas répondu à ma question : qu’est-ce qui est le contraire de la peur ?

(…)

Je songeai au marchand éléphantin. Suicide était celui qui, dans tout le camp, s’était le plus attaché à ce personnage à l’humeur vive et gaie ; ils étaient rapidement devenus amis. À la veille de ma première bataille, tandis que le peloton de mon maître préparait le souper, ce marchand arriva. Il avait vendu tout ce qu’il avait et même sa charrette et son âne, même son manteau et ses sandales.

Et là, il circulait distribuant des poires et de petits gâteaux aux guerriers. Il s’arrêta près de notre feu. Mon maître procédait souvent le soir à un sacrifice ; pas grand-chose, un bout de pain et une libation ; sa prière était silencieuse, juste quelques paroles du fond de son cœur à l’intention des dieux. Il ne disait pas la teneur de sa prière, mais je la lisais sur ses lèvres ; il priait pour Aretê et ses filles.

— Ce sont ces jeunes hommes qui devraient prier avec autant de piété, observa le marchand, et pas vous, vétérans ronchonneurs.

Dienekès invita avec empressement le marchand à s’asseoir. Bias, qui était encore vivant, s’était moqué du manque de prévoyance du marchand ; comment s’échapperait-il, maintenant, sans charrette et sans âne ?

Éléphantin ne répondit pas.

— Notre ami ne s’en ira pas, dit doucement Dienekès, fixant le sol du regard.

Alexandros et Ariston étaient arrivés sur ces entrefaites avec un lièvre qu’ils avaient marchandé à des gamins d’Alpenoï. On se moqua de leur acquisition, un lièvre d’hiver si maigre qu’il nourrirait à peine deux hommes et certes pas seize. Le marchand sourit et regarda mon maître.

— Vous trouver, vous les vétérans, aux Murailles de Feu, c’est normal. Mais ces gamins, dit-il en indiquant d’un geste les servants et moi-même, qui sortions à peine de l’adolescence. Comment pourrais-je partir alors que ces enfants sont ici ? Je vous envie, reprit-il quand l’émotion dans sa voix se fut apaisée. J’ai cherché toute ma vie ce que vous possédez de naissance, l’appartenance à une noble cité.

Il montra les feux alentour et les jeunes et les vieux assis devant.

— Ceci sera ma cité. Je serai son magistrat et son médecin, le père de ses orphelins et son amuseur public.

Puis il nous donna ses poires et se leva pour aller à un autre feu, et encore un autre, et l’on entendait les rires qu’il déclenchait sur son passage.

Les Alliés étaient alors postés aux Portes depuis quatre jours. Ils avaient mesuré les forces perses sur terre et sur mer et ils savaient les dangers insurmontables qui les attendaient. Ce ne fut qu’alors que je pris conscience de la réalité du péril qui menaçait l’Hellade et ses défenseurs. Le coucher du soleil me trouva pensif.

Un long silence suivit le passage de l’éléphantin. Alexandros écorchait le lièvre et j’étais en train de moudre de l’orge. Médon bâtissait le feu sur le sol, Léon le Noir hachait des oignons, Bias et Léon Vit d’Âne étaient allongés contre un fût de chêne abattu pour son bois. À la surprise générale, Suicide prit la parole.

— Il y a dans mon pays une déesse qu’on appelle Na’an, dit-il. Ma mère en était la prêtresse, si l’on peut user d’un aussi grand mot pour une paysanne qui avait passé toute sa vie à l’arrière d’un chariot. J’y pense à cause de la charrette que ce marchand appelle sa maison.

On n’avait jamais entendu Suicide parler autant. Tout le monde croyait qu’il avait vidé là son sac. Et pourtant, il poursuivit. Sa prêtresse de mère lui avait appris que rien sous le soleil n’est réel ; que la terre et tout ce qu’il y a dessus n’étaient que des paravents, les matérialisations de réalités beaucoup plus profondes et plus belles au-delà, invisibles pour les mortels. Que tout ce que nous appelons réalité est animé par cette essence plus subtile, inévitable et indestructible.

— La religion de ma mère enseigne que seules sont réelles les choses qui ne peuvent pas être perçues par les sens. L’âme. L’amour maternel. Le courage. Ces choses sont plus proches des dieux parce qu’elles sont les mêmes des deux côtés de la mort, devant et derrière le rideau. Quand je suis arrivé à Lacédémone et que j’ai vu la phalange à l’exercice, j’ai pensé qu’elle pratiquait la forme de guerre la plus absurde que j’eusse vue.

Dans mon pays, nous nous battons à cheval. C’est la seule glorieuse manière de se battre, c’est un spectacle qui excite l’âme. Mais j’admirais les hommes de la phalange et leur courage, qui me semblait supérieur à celui de toutes les autres nations que j’avais vues. Ils étaient pour moi une énigme.

Mon maître écoutait avec attention ; il était évident que cette profusion de paroles de Suicide était pour lui aussi inattendue que pour tous les autres.

— Te rappelles-tu, Dienekès, quand nous nous battions contre les Thébains à Érythrée ? Quand ils ont flanché et pris la fuite ? C’était la première déroute à laquelle j’assistais. J’en étais horrifié. Existe-t-il quelque chose de plus bas, de plus dégradant sous le soleil qu’une phalange qui se désintègre de peur ? Cela donne honte d’être un mortel, d’être aussi ignoble en face de l’ennemi. Cela viole les lois suprêmes des dieux. Le visage de Suicide, qui n’avait été qu’une grimace de dédain, s’éclaira. Ah, mais à l’opposé, une ligne qui tient ! Qu’est-ce qui est plus beau, plus noble !

Je rêvai une nuit que je marchais avec la phalange, reprit Suicide. Nous avancions sur une plaine à la rencontre de l’ennemi. J’étais terrifié. Mes camarades marchaient autour de moi, devant, derrière, à droite et à gauche, et tous étaient moi. Moi vieux, moi jeune. J’étais encore plus terrifié, comme si je me désagrégeais.

Et puis ils se sont mis à chanter, tous ces moi, et, comme leurs voix s’élevaient dans une douce harmonie, la peur me quitta. Je me réveillai le cœur paisible et je sus que ce rêve venait des dieux. Je compris que c’était ce qui faisait la grandeur de la phalange, le ciment qui assurait sa cohésion. Je compris que cet entraînement et cette discipline que vous Spartiates aimez vous imposer, ne sert pas vraiment à enseigner la technique ou l’art de la guerre, mais à créer ce ciment.

Médon se mit à rire.

— Et quel ciment as-tu donc dilué, Suicide, qui fait qu’enfin tes mâchoires se desserrent avec une expansivité si peu scythe ?

Les flammes éclairèrent un sourire de Suicide. C’était, disait-on, Médon qui lui avait donné son surnom quand, coupable d’un meurtre dans son pays, le Scythe s’était enfui à Sparte et qu’il demandait à tout le monde de le tuer.

— Je n’aimais d’abord pas ce surnom. Mais avec le temps, j’en reconnus la profondeur, même si elle n’était pas intentionnelle. Car qu’est-ce qui est plus noble que de se tuer ? Pas littéralement, pas avec une épée dans le ventre, mais de tuer le moi égoïste à l’intérieur, cette partie de soi qui ne vise qu’à sa conservation, qui ne veut que sauver sa peau. C’est la victoire que vous, Spartiates, avez remportée sur vous-mêmes. C’était le ciment, c’était ce que vous aviez appris et qui m’a fait rester.

Léon le Noir avait écouté tout le discours du Scythe.

— Ce que tu dis, Suicide, si je peux t’appeler ainsi, est vrai, mais tout ce qui est invisible n’est pas noble. Les sentiments bas sont également invisibles. La peur, la cupidité et la lubricité. Qu’en fais-tu ?

— Oui, mais ils puent, ils rendent malade. Les choses nobles invisibles sont comme la musique dans laquelle les notes les plus hautes sont les plus belles. C’est une autre chose qui m’a étonné quand je suis arrivé à Sparte. Votre musique. Combien il y en avait, pas seulement les odes martiales et les chants de guerre que vous entonnez quand vous allez vers l’ennemi, mais également les danses, les chœurs, les festivals, les sacrifices. Pourquoi ces guerriers consommés honorent-ils la musique alors qu’ils interdisent le théâtre et l’art ? Je crois qu’ils sentent que les vertus sont comme la musique, elles vibrent sur des registres plus élevés, plus nobles.

Il se tourna vers Alexandros.

C’est pourquoi Léonidas t’a choisi parmi les Trois Cents, mon jeune maître, bien qu’il ait su que tu n’avais jamais fait partie des trompettes. Il croit que tu chanteras ici, aux Portes, dans ce sublime registre, pas avec ceci – et il indiqua la gorge – mais avec cela – et, de la main, il se toucha le cœur.

Puis il se ressaisit, soudain embarrassé. Autour du feu, tout le monde le regardait avec gravité et respect. Dienekès rompit le silence en disant, avec un rire :

— Tu es philosophe, Suicide.

— Oui, dit le Scythe en souriant, ouvre l’œil sur ça !

Un messager vint mander Dienekès au conseil que tenait Léonidas. Mon maître me fit signe de l’accompagner. Quelque chose avait changé en lui ; je le sentais à la manière dont nous traversions le réseau de sentiers qui s’entrecroisaient dans le camp des Alliés.

— Te rappelles-tu cette nuit, Xéon, où nous discutions avec Ariston et Alexandros de la peur et de son opposé ?

Je répondis que je me la rappelais.

— J’ai la réponse à ma question. Nos amis le marchand et le Scythe me l’ont soufflée.

Il parcourut du regard les feux du camp, les unités des nations assemblées et leurs officiers qui se dirigeaient vers le feu du roi, pour répondre à ses besoins et recevoir ses instructions.

— L’opposé de la peur, dit Dienekès, est l’amour.

Extrait 2: Qu’est-ce que la mort ?

Je me suis toujours demandé ce que c’était de mourir. Il y avait un exercice que nous pratiquions quand nous servions d’escorte et de souffre-douleur à l’infanterie lourde Spartiate. Cela s’appelait «le chêne», parce que nous prenions nos positions le long d’une rangée de chênes à la lisière de la plaine de l’Otona, où les Spartiates et les Néodamodes s’entraînaient l’automne et l’hiver.

Nous nous mettions en ligne par dix rangs, bardés sur toute notre hauteur de boucliers d’osier tressé, crantés dans la terre, et les troupes de choc venaient nous donner l’assaut ; elles arrivaient sur la plaine par huit rangs, d’abord au pas, puis plus rapidement et finalement en courant à perdre haleine.

Le choc de leurs boucliers tressés était destiné à nous épuiser et ils y parvenaient. C’était comme si l’on était heurté par une montagne. En dépit de nos efforts pour rester debout, nos genoux cédaient comme de jeunes arbres dans un tremblement de terre ; en un instant le courage désertait nos cœurs. Nous étions déracinés comme des épis morts sous la pelle du laboureur.

 

Sparte 02.jpg

 

Et l’on apprenait alors ce qu’était mourir. L’arme qui m’a transpercé aux Thermopyles était une lance d’hoplite égyptien, qui pénétra sous le sternum de ma cage thoracique. Mais la sensation ne fut pas ce qu’on aurait cru, ce ne fut pas celle d’être transpercé, mais plutôt assommé, comme nous les apprentis, la chair à hacher, l’avions res­senti dans la chênaie.
J’avais imaginé que les morts s’en allaient dans le déta­chement. Qu’ils considéraient la vie d’un regard sage et froid. Mais l’expérience m’a démontré le contraire.

L’émo­tion dominait tout. Il me sembla qu’il ne restait plus rien que l’émotion. Mon cœur souffrit à se rompre, comme jamais auparavant dans ma vie. Le sentiment de perte m’envahit avec une puissance déchirante. J’ai revu ma femme et mes enfants, ma chère cousine Diomaque, celle que j’aimais. J’ai vu mon père Scamandride et ma mère Eunice, Bruxieus, Dekton et Suicide, des noms qui ne disent rien à Sa Majesté, mais qui pour moi étaient plus chers que la vie et qui, maintenant que je meurs, me deviennent encore plus chers.

Ils se sont éloignés. Et moi, je me suis éloigné d’eux.

Extrait 3: [Polynice, un des meilleurs commandants spartiates, interroge le jeune Alexandros]

- Tu voulais voir la guerre, reprit Polynice. Comment avais-tu imaginé que ce serait ?

Alexandros était requis de répondre avec une parfaite brièveté, à la spartiate. Devant le carnage, ses yeux avait été frappés d’horreur et son cœur d’affliction, lui dit-on ; mais alors, à quoi croyait-il que servait une lance ? Un bouclier ? Une épée ? Ces questions et d’autres lui furent posées sans cruauté ni sarcasme, ce qui eût été facile à endurer, mais de manière froide et rationnelle, exigeant une réponse concise.

Il fut prié de décrire les blessures que pouvaient causer une lance et le type de mort qui s’en suivrait. Une attaque de haut devait-elle viser la gorge ou la poitrine ? Si le tendon de l’ennemi était sectionné, fallait-il s’arrêter pour l’achever ou bien aller de l’avant ? Si l’on enfonçait une lance dans le pubis, au-dessus des testicules, fallait-il la retirer tout droit ou bien prolonger l’estocade vers le haut, pour éviscérer l’homme ? Alexandros rougit, sa voix trembla et se brisa.

- Veux-tu que nous nous interrompions, mon garçon ? Cette instruction est-elle trop rude pour toi? Réponds de manière brève. Peux-tu imaginer un monde où la guerre n’existe pas? Peux-tu espérer de la clémence d’un ennemi? Décris les conditions dans lesquelles Lacédémone se trouverait sans armée pour la défendre.

Qu’est-ce qui vaut mieux, la victoire ou la défaite? Gouverner ou être gouverné? Faire une veuve de l’épouse de l’ennemi ou bien de sa propre femme? Quelle est la suprême qualité d’un homme? Pourquoi? Qui admires-tu le plus dans toute la cité? Et pourquoi? Définis le mot « miséricorde ». Définis le mot « compassion ». Sont-ce là des vertus pour le temps de guerre ou le temps de paix? Sont-ce des vertus masculines ou féminines? Et sont-ce bien des vertus?

De tous les pairs qui harcelaient Alexandros ce soir-là, Polynice n’apparaissait guère comme le plus acharné ni comme le plus sévère. Ce n’était pas lui qui menait l’ arosis et ses questions n’était ni franchement cruelles, ni malicieuses. Il ne lui laissait tout simplement pas de répit.

Dans les voix des autres, aussi pressantes que fussent leurs questions, résonnait tacitement l’inclusion : Alexandros était l’un des leurs et ce qu’ils faisaient ce soir-là et feraient d’autres soirs ne visait pas à le décourager ni à l’écraser comme un esclave, mais à l’endurcir, à fortifier sa volonté, à le rendre plus digne d’être un jour appelé guerrier, comme eux, et à assumer son rang de pair et de Spartiate.

Extrait 4. [L'armée perse s'avance, pour le premier affrontement]

Léonidas avait maintes fois recommandé aux officiers thespiens de veiller à ce que les boucliers, les jambières et les casques de leurs hommes fussent aussi brillants que possible ; et là, c’était des miroirs. Par-dessus les bords des boucliers de bronze, les casques rutilaient, surmontés par des crinières de queue de cheval qui, lorsqu’elles frissonnaient au vent, ne créaient pas seulement une impression de haute taille, mais dégageaient aussi une indicible menace.

Ce qui ajoutait au spectacle terrifiant de la phalange hellénique et qui pour moi était le plus effrayant, c’étaient les masques sans expression des casques grecs, avec leurs nasales épaisses comme le pouce, les jugulaires écartées et les fentes sinistres des yeux, qui recouvraient tout le visage et donnaient à l’ennemi le sentiment qu’il affrontait, non pas des créatures de chair comme lui-même, mais quelque atroce machine, invulnérable, impitoyable.

J’en avais ri avec Alexandros moins de deux heures auparavant, quand il avait posé son casque sur son bonnet de feutre ; l’instant d’avant, avec le casque posé posé à l’arrière du crâne, il paraissait juvénile et charmant, et puis quand il eut rebattu la jugulaire et ajusté le masque, toute l’humanité du visage était partie. La douceur expressive des yeux avait été remplacée par deux insondables trous noirs dans les orbites de bronze. L’aspect du personnage avait changé. Plus de compassion. Rien que le masque aveugle du meurtre.

 

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- Enlève-le ! Avais-je crié. Tu me fais peur !

Et je ne plaisantais pas.

Dienekès vérifiait à ce moment-là l’effet des armures hellènes sur l’ennemi. Il parcourait leurs rangs du regard. Les taches sombres de l’urine maculaient plus d’un pantalon, ça et là, les pointes de lances tremblaient. Les Mèdes se mirent en formation, les rangs trouvèrent leurs marques, les commandants prirent leurs postes.

Le temps s’étira encore. L’ennui le céda à l’angoisse. Les nerfs se tendirent. Le sang battait aux tempes. Les mains devinrent gourdes et les membres insensibles. Le corps sembla tripler de poids et se changer en pierre froide. On s’entendait implorer les dieux sans savoir si c’étaient des voix intérieures ou si on criait réellement et sans vergogne des prières.

Sa majesté se trouvait sans doute trop haut sur la montagne pour s’être avisée du coup du ciel qui précipita l’affrontement. Tout d’un coup, un lièvre dévala la montagne, passant entre les deux armées, à une trentaine de pieds de Xénocratide, le commandant thespien.

Steven Pressfield, Les murailles de feu, édité en mars 2007

dimanche, 17 août 2014

Agis IV, Sparta’s great reformer king

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Agis IV, Sparta’s great reformer king

All great cultures and nations that have arisen, and all those who are to come will one day decline and pass into history. This cyclical understanding is near universal. Societies do not decline however, entirely without an awareness of their decline. Like any organism that is sickly or wounded, society will show the symptoms of its decay, sometimes before it is too late and the course is not irreversible. History has given us many examples of men who, like canaries in a mine, warned of impending danger oftentimes losing their lives in the process. One of the finest examples is that of Agis IV, the Agiad king of Sparta. But first, a few remarks are necessary on the Spartan constitution and government before his time.

The Spartan constitution is perhaps one of the most unique in history. The Spartan state was for some time indistinguishable from the rest of the Greek poleis; its unique constitution was eventually decreed under one of the legendary sages of Greece, Lycurgus. Lycurgus aimed to make Sparta a militarized society that valued discipline, order and a strict hierarchy. The Spartan citizens were a warrior class able to form up at a moments notice to meet any threats. Spartans were known for their disdain for material wealth, their military prowess, and their system of a dual monarchy. Two kingly houses, the Argiad and the Eurypontid, traced their ancestry back to Hercules ruled Sparta for the length of its independent history, and were supported by five ephors, elected officials who were only permitted to remain in power for a year. Below these were a council of elders and a popular assembly. Sparta followed a strict hierarchy, only Spartan youths and a select few free men and helots were permitted to citizenship, and to be a Spartan meant to swear off trades or engage in any work outside of martial training and warfare, or travel outside of Sparta, unless on campaign or specifically permitted. The men were required to dine together from their adulthood to around their sixtieth year. Agricultural work, trade and craftsmanship were all done by either helots, the lowest class in the Spartan state, or perioeci, freemen without the privileges of citizenship. Despite its harsh nature, Spartan society proved resilient and Sparta remained one of the dominant states in Greece until the time of Alexander. Spartan soldiery enjoyed a reputation of near invincibility for most of this period, and even after its decline Spartans were highly prized as mercenaries.

Aristotle criticized the Spartan constitution in his Politics, writing that while it was suitable in war, it did not prepare Spartans to live in peace, and thus the very success of Sparta against Athens led to its ruin, through the influx of material wealth from its defeated foe. With no understanding of enjoying luxury in moderation, Sparta sunk into decadence. Its population had fallen perilously low, and the pool of citizens was shrinking to the point where only seven hundred families were considered Spartan, and of these only one hundred remained that possessed land. This was partially on account of a on the change in inheritance law, where before it would go to the son, after it could go to whomever one desired.

Agis was born into the wealthiest of the Spartan families and lived his early life in the luxury which Spartans had grown accustomed too, but was raised with a respect for Sparta’s great history, and its old ways which he resolved, before the age of 20 to adopt. He forsook the luxurious habits of his peers and donned the coarse cloak of the Spartans of old, and sought in every way to live by the laws of Lycurgus. He had his opportunity when he succeeded his father on the throne in 245 BC.

Those most opposed to Agis IV reforms were the older, established men who were used to their comfort and luxury and, to quote Plutarch,

The young men, as he found, quickly and beyond his expectations gave ear to him, and stripped themselves for the contest in behalf of virtue, like him casting aside their old ways of living as worn-out garments in order to attain liberty. But most of the older men, since they were now far gone in corruption, feared and shuddered at the name of Lycurgus as if they had run away from their master and were being led back to him, and they upbraided Agis for bewailing the present state of affairs and yearning after the ancient dignity of Sparta..”

Spartan women also tended to oppose his moves, as Spartan society gave them a unique control over the affairs of family estates, and thus, the riches of the family. They enlisted Leonidas II, the co king to their cause. Leonidas was himself given to luxury even beyond the rest, having been raised in the Seleucid court. He needed very little persuading in the matter and opposed Agis’ motions on the grounds of the disorder they would cause. Agis had key supporters, however, in his mother and grandmother, along with his uncle Agesilaus, and the ephor Lysander. With their assistance, he presented a motion to the council of elders calling for drastic reforms to bring Sparta back in accordance with the laws of Lycurgus, including a cancellation of all debts, redistribution of land into equal parts among the Spartans with the rest going to free men, the elevating of more of the free men to citizenship class to alleviate their dangerously low numbers. Agis IV gained even more fervent support when he vowed to redistribute and part with his own lands and wealth first and foremost, with his family doing the same. He managed to banish Leonidas on the grounds of both his foreign upbringing and foreign wife, both strictly forbidden by the laws of Lycurgus, and be replaced with his son in law, Cleombrotus, a man far more amendable to Agis’ aims.  Some in his camp around his uncle were eager to see Leonidas killed, but Agis, discovering this sent men to guard and escort Leonidas to safety. A more cunning, less morally scrupulous man than Agis would have no doubt allowed the conspirators to kill Leonidas, and be rid of a dangerous rival. This mercy would later contribute to his undoing.

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With the removal of Leonidas and the support of ephors, he pushed through his reforms until being summoned to war as part of his alliance with Aratas and the Achaean League. He collected an army and departed, eager to take an opportunity to display the reinvigorated spirit of Sparta.  His men, it is said eagerly marched behind the young king, and were marveled at by their allies for their discipline, order, and cheery disposition. While ultimately the campaign ended before any major engagement, Agis IV did Sparta no dishonor in this, fulfilling what was required of him by treaty and winning the respect of Aratas his fellow commander. Unfortunately, during his time away, he left the affairs of state in the hands of Agesilaus. While Agesilaus was a well regarded man, he had ulterior motives for supporting his nephew’s reforms; he had incurred significant debts that the reforms the king was pushing through would cancel out. He endeavored to push for the debt cancellation but delay the redistribution of land with the argument that the reforms should be carried out at a gradual pace, but once the first part was enacted, continually stalled on the second. This caused much chaos and disorder and left the Spartans yearning even for a return of Leonidas. At the same time, Lysander and Mandrocleides’ terms of office as ephors expired, and the new ephors were opposed to Agis’ designs.  Leonidas was able to return unopposed with mercenaries at his back. Agis and Cleombrotus sensed the danger and fled to sanctuaries of Athena and Poseidon respectively. Leonidas wasted no time deposing his son in law, exiling him rather than executing him at the behest of his daughter, leaving only Agis to deal with. Agis was protected for a time by some companions, who would escort him from the sanctuary to the public baths. This continued until these same companions persuaded by one Amphares, under pressure from Leonidas, betrayed him and dragged him to prison.

From his cell, Agis was ordered to defend himself and accused of bring disorder into Sparta.  Agis refused to denounce his conduct, insisting that he had acted of his own volition, with Lycurgus as his only inspiration. He stated that though he suffer the most severe punishment, he would not be made to renounce so noble an idea. He was sentenced to death accordingly, though those sent to execute him were reluctant to do so, for to spill the blood of a king and a man of such nature was a dishonor even to Leonidas’ hirelings.  One Damochares stepped forward for Leonidas and the ephors were eager that he be dispatched with haste as people had gathered by the prison, including Agis’ mother and grandmother demanding he be tried before the people, rather than Leonidas’ selected men.

Greek_Hoplite.jpgAgis was thus led to the execution chamber, and, according to Plutarch;

saw one of the officers shedding tears of sympathy for him. “My man,” said he, “cease weeping; for even though I am put to death in this lawless and unjust manner, I have the better of my murderers.” And saying these words, he offered his neck to the noose without hesitation.”

With this, Agis was executed via strangulation. His mother and grandmother were executed at the same spot after; both faced their end with bravery. Before her death, his mother is said to have uttered: “My son, it was thy too great regard for others, and thy gentleness and humanity, which has brought thee to ruin, us as well.”  Though Agis had failed, all was not lost to Sparta. Leonidas arranged for his widow to marry his son Cleomenes. Despite the circusmtances, the two developed mutual affection and the young Cleomenes was deeply impressed by Agis’ project. Upon taking the throne he enacted reforms himself, and led a resurgent Sparta against its enemies, becoming the last great king of Sparta.

Agis’s kingship only lasted four brief years yet he inspired one of his successor kings, Plutarch and countless others in later generations. Our interest in him comes from his embodiment of the ideal qualities of a true king. He wished to reform Spartan society and to bring it back into accordance with the laws of its illustrious past. His land reforms, redistribution and debt cancellation in other hands could have been seen as simply cheap populism meant to gain support and power. What separates Agis from a populist demagogue was his sincere desire to elevate Sparta spiritually. He wished to shake off its decadence and revive its old love of discipline, order and disdain for material gain. Sparta’s economic condition was of secondary importance. While his reforms would certainly have greatly improved the lot for its citizens and freemen, what was more important was they would restore Sparta’s honor and ensure its viability as a state long after his death.  He was more than happy to sacrifice wealth and even his life for this goal, when he could have at any point ceased or compromised. In his personal conduct as well he showed nobility to a fault- never resorting to foul means or dishonorable acts to see his plans through. Even at his end, Plutarch seems to imply the ephors gave him the opportunity to pass the blame to his uncle Agesilaus or the ephor Lysander for the chaotic state of affairs. He took full responsibility rather than speak against either man. He could have been forgiven for betraying Agesilaus to Leonidas, considering how much of the blame for his ruin rested on the shoulders of that man, yet he refused to do so, such was his character. If there were any faults in the man, it was naivety and good nature, and these can hardly be called faults.

vendredi, 14 mars 2014

Spartan Women

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Spartan Women

Sarah B. Pomeroy
Spartan Women 
Oxford University Press, 2002

Ancient Sparta is known not only for its great warriors, but also for its unusual treatment of women. Further north in democratic Athens, modest women were rarely educated and mostly kept sequestered indoors. But in the militarist state of Sparta, the government insisted that both boys and girls be given an education from childhood. Boys were trained to be future warriors, and women to be the mother of warriors — a task that required a variety of skills.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, a professor at New York’s Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University, delves into the unique education and lifestyles of women in Sparta in Spartan Women. Although its primary focus is women, the reader will learn much in the book about the men in this city-state in the south-eastern Peloponnese, as well as about the lives of both men and women in classical Athens.

Women’s Education in Sparta

Compared to other Greek women, Spartans had vastly more free time to do what they wanted. One reason for this was because Sparta was highly dependent on the labor of slaves (called helots), and Spartan citizens were not allowed to engage in most forms of manual labor. This meant that even the women were free from much domestic drudgery. The men of Sparta were full-time warriors, and consequently, Spartan women were usually more cultured than the men. For example, girls were trained in singing, dancing, and playing instruments, and singing competitions often were held between individuals and rival choruses.

Pomeroy says that there is much reason to believe that literacy was common among women in Sparta. There are numerous references to women writing letters to their sons at war (usually these consisted of urging their sons to be brave warriors). And Spartan women also were encouraged in public speaking. In ProtagorasPlato even refers to the women of Sparta and Crete, who take pride in their educations and are skilled in philosophical debate. Common themes for women’s speeches included praising the brave and reviling cowards and bachelors. Another testimony to Spartan women’s education: The Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus said there were 17 or 18 women among Pythagoras’ 235 disciples; about one-third of the women were Spartans, while less than 1 percent were Spartan men.

Women could own land in Sparta, and by Aristotle’s time, they owned two-fifths of the land in Laconia. Another privilege of Spartan women, according to Pomeroy: “of all Greek women, Spartans alone drank wine not only at festivals, but also as part of their daily fare.” Although they could not vote, they participated in political campaigns and were said to have much influence over their husbands (according to Aristotle).

Spartan Women and Sports

Edgar Degas, “Young Spartans Exercising”

Spartan Women also details women’s role in sports, another area where they were able to receive training and to excel. Their training was similar to that of boys, but less intense. Women participated in trials of strength, racing competitions, wrestling, discus throwing, and hurling the javelin. Some athletic competitions were held in honor of female deities.

The encouragement of athleticism in women appears to be based on women’s role as mothers. According to Xenophon, Lycurgus (who created Sparta’s constitution) thought that having two physically healthy parents would be more likely to produce healthy offspring.

Young men and women often exercised in the nude, and there was even a “Festival of Nude Youths.” Confirmed bachelors, according to Plutarch, were banned from attending. For the others, it was a chance to view potential marriage partners.

Marriage in Sparta

Gustave Moreau’s depiction of Helen of Troy (Helen of Spara)

Spartan women were usually married at 18—later than other Greek women—and the marriages were unusual for Greece at the time. Unlike in Athens, where a 15-year-old girl might marry a man twice her age, Spartan couples were usually close to the same age. The men lived with other men in military groups until age 30, so there was no “nuclear family” until later in life. Husbands and wives were not encouraged to spend a lot of time together, the idea being that absence created stronger passions between the pair, and that the child resulting from a passionate union would be stronger.

The marriages in Sparta were “mostly monogamous.” Although couples were married, it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to have another man’s child than her husband’s, if the man could persuade the husband to allow it. As the population declined, men began fathering children with the helots (the children would be partial citizens); but the consequence was that their legitimate wives began having fewer children. There appears to have been no penalty for adulterous women, like in other parts of Greece where they could be punishable with death.

The Importance of Motherhood

Spartan Women spends many pages describing the role of motherhood in Sparta, since being a mother (particularly the mother of a brave warrior) was the highest honor for women. The only women who were permitted gravestones were priestesses and those who died in childbirth. Women spent much of their time actually involved with their children, since slaves did many of the domestic chores and families were provided with rations of food by the state. Women did work, but it was more as managers than as servants. Before the decline of Sparta, greed was considered a vice, so women’s pursuits were more centered on the arts and their children rather than accumulating material things. In fact, Spartan women were forbidden to wear gold or use cosmetics.

Because they were so involved with their children’s upbringing, women felt very responsible for their children’s successes (and failures) in life. Many of these attitudes can be found in Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women, where he recounts women disowning and even killing cowardly sons.

One of Pomeroy’s most interesting discoveries involves the practice of infanticide. It’s a well-documented fact that deformed or weak babies would be thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos, a form of eugenics that ensured a strong military for the state, and that only worthy candidates would be awarded the land and education that was the right of every Spartan citizen. Pomeroy presents a valid case that female babies were not put to the same scrutiny as the males (except for obvious physical deformities). Not all male babies were capable of being warriors, but even the weakest female baby could grow into a mother of warriors.

Women and Religion in Sparta

Unlike most societies in ancient Greece, the private family religious cult was virtually unknown in Sparta. There are several main reasons for this: The first is because there was such an emphasis on community, so primary loyalty was to the state not the family. The militaristic nature of Sparta meant that transcendent values and actions were more important than biological ties (as evidenced by the willingness to kill family members). And finally, since married couples lived apart until the man was 30, and since children went away from home to be educated at a young age, the “family” as we think of it today was never very solidified.

Religion was important to women in Sparta, however. The popular cults for women included those of Dionysus, Eileithyia (a fertility goddess), Artemis, Hera, Helen of Troy, Demeter, Apollo, Athena, and Aphrodite. Spartan Women goes into details about each of these cults, and also discusses the role of women priestesses at various periods in the city-state’s history.

*  *  *

Spartan Women is scholarly and well-researched, yet written in an easy-to-understand style for a general audience. My only complaint is that much of the information is repeated at many places throughout the book — however, it is evidence of thorough research and ensures that you can read any chapter and receive all of the relevant information. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of either Sparta or Athens, women’s roles in traditional societies, and women’s roles in pagan religions.

jeudi, 08 novembre 2012

Lycurgus & the Spartan State

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Lycurgus & the Spartan State

By Mark Dyal

Ex: http://www.counter-currents.com/

“And Theompopus, when a stranger kept saying, as he showed him kindness, that in his own city he was called a lover of Sparta, remarked: ‘My good sir, it were better for thee to be called a lover of thine own city.’” – Plutarch[1]

Lycurgus-9389581-1-402.jpgJust as Mussolini looked to Ancient Rome for the model of a healthy, organic society, the Ancient Romans looked to Sparta. In the first century (A.D.), as Rome continued its imperial ascent to near-hemispheric domination, the distance between the virtuous Republican nobility and the garish imperial nobility began to alert many to the potential for social degeneration. One of these was Plutarch, a Roman scholar of Greek birth.

Plutarch is best known for his series of parallel lives of the most virtuous Greeks and Romans, written to explain the particular virtues and vices that either elevate or subordinate a people. His “Life of Lycurgus,” then, is less a celebratory tale of the legendary king who transformed Sparta from typical Greek polis into the greatest warrior state in Western history than a description of that state. Its lessons are no less astounding to contemporary Americans than they were for Imperial Romans. And, while many Greek, Roman, and contemporary writers have explored the origins of warrior Sparta, Plutarch’s “Life of Lycurgus” remains the only necessary source on the subject.

Lycurgan Sparta was born of decadence. As the mentor of the young Spartan king Charilaus, his nephew, Lycurgus played a Cato-esque role. He imparted conservative and austere virtues to the young king, seeking to stem the love of money and ostentatious displays among the city’s nobility. When this tactic ran afoul of the Spartan elite, Lycurgus left the city and traveled around Greece and Asia. He discovered the Homeric epics and visited the Oracle at Delphi. There, Apollo’s priests told him that under his guidance a state would become the most powerful in Greece. So, with Apollo’s backing, he returned to Sparta and was given legal command of the city.[2] He immediately established a social system in which decadence would be impossible.

Lycurgus sought above all to end the vanity, weakness, and extravagance of the Spartan people. Politically, he devised a dually senatorial and monarchical governmental system that governed for the good of the state, not just its wealthiest citizens. Before Lycurgus, the kings of two royal families ruled Sparta, a model already designed to limit tyranny. In adding the senate, Lycurgus sought only further political stability,[3] understanding that democracy was only as valuable as its subjects were noble.[4]

So whereas the Athenians made democracy the reason of the state, Lycurgus made nobility the rationality of Spartan life. Individual Spartan lives were subordinated to that one ideal.[5] But what made Lycurgan nobility so extraordinary was, one, that it was attainable only by the bravest, strongest, and most accomplished warriors – and their women; and two, the lengths to which the state went in breeding this type of nobility.

Just as we have seen in Italian Fascist thought,[6] Lycurgus was interested in human instincts. Contextually speaking, however, we do not give the latter as much credit as the former. For Lycurgus was living at a time far removed from modern assumptions about the separation of mind and body. The Greek ideal, then, was possible precisely because the body was understood to be an outward manifestation of the mind. What is remarkable in Lycurgan Sparta, though, is the understanding of the link between instinct and conception; and it is this understanding that made warriors the most noble of nobles. In other words, Spartan training was not designed to create warrior bodies and concepts, but warrior instincts, of which the bodies were mere symptoms. Thus the importance placed on ethics and environment, as we will see below.

Lycurgus took one ideal and made it the aim of the state and its subjects. But while Greek nobility had become associated with hereditary wealth, creating a self-perpetuating system of luxury and quality (to which moderns owe much of the value of the Hellenic legacy, in particular) Lycurgus transvaluated nobility, making it instead something attainable only in violent service (and the preparation thereof) to the state. He felt more profoundly than other Greeks the relationship between nobility and the human form – conceptually and physiologically – and the idea of training these in concert. And, he reformed the Spartan state to become a factory of bodily nobility. It was his social and physiological reforms to this end that were critical to Sparta’s transformation, establishing, as they did, the messes, agōgē (meaning abduction but also leading and training), and eugenics that gave content to Sparta’s warriors.

Lycurgus’ first tasks, like establishing the senate, were designed to change the immediate political and social climate of the city. He redistributed all the land in Sparta so that each citizen family had a small plot of land to cultivate. He also banned coined money, instituting instead the trade in vinegar-soaked iron bars, thus making it virtually impossible to amass wealth.[7] Almost all forms of iniquity vanished from Sparta, Plutarch writes, “for who would steal or receive as a bribe, or rob or plunder that which could neither be concealed, nor possessed with satisfaction, nay, nor even cut to pieces with any profit?”[8] Elsewhere, Plutarch explains that wealth “awakened no envy, and brought no honor” to its Spartan bearer.[9]

Although most artisans left Sparta when there was no longer a way to trade their goods, Lycurgus compounded their misery by banishing any “unnecessary and superfluous” arts.[10] When not on campaign, Spartan men spent their time in festivals, hunting, exercising, and instructing the youth.[11] Within months of the Lycurgan monetary reforms, it was impossible to buy foreign wares, receive foreign freight, hire teachers of rhetoric, or visit soothsayers and prostitutes in Sparta. Although such restrictions were not motivated by the desire to protect or develop Spartan artisan crafts, locally produced housewares soon became sought after throughout the Greek world.[12] After establishing the limits of what would be permitted in Sparta, Lycurgus set his sights on educating toward nobility.

To ensure the unity and gastronomical fitness of Spartan men, Lycurgus created a mess system wherein men and youthful warriors dined together. Scholars have pointed to the messes as a crucial element of the Lycurgan reforms, and one that only made sense by Lycurgus’ understanding of the close relationship between mind and body. As Plutarch explains, the mess ensured more than social cohesion, providing a forum for the maintenance of the warrior himself:

With a view to attack luxury, [Lycurgus] . . . introduced the common messes so that they might eat with one another in companies, of common and specified foods, and not take their meals at home, reclining on costly couches at costly tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and cooks to be fattened in the dark, like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but also their bodies.[13]

The infamous agōgē operated with similar motivations. Breaking with Greek tradition – Xenophon explains that Lycurgus literally transvalued all Greek child rearing and education practices[14] – no private tutors or education were allowed in Sparta. The Spartan state, instead, educated all boys from age seven, regardless of his family’s status. In the agōgē boys were trained for discipline, courage, and fighting. They learned just enough reading and writing to serve their purpose as warriors, with their education “calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle.”[15] Likewise, the boys went barefoot and largely unclothed so that they may function better in rough terrain and in inclement weather. Clothes, Xenophon explains, were thought to encourage effeminacy and an inability to handle variations in temperature.[16]

As well as being scantily clad, boys in the agōgē were underfed and encouraged to steal food. This taught them to solve the problem of hunger by their own hands with cunning and boldness[17] and encouraged the development of warlike instincts.[18] To further this development, the boys were forced to live for a period in the mountain wilderness, without weapons, and unseen.[19] If boys were caught stealing, their agōgē superiors beat them. Kennell debates the legend that these beatings had fatal consequences. After all, a Spartan boy/young man was the focus of the entire social rationale, and would not be killed prematurely. Another part of the legend is not debatable, however: the boys were not beaten for having stolen, but for having been mediocre enough at it to be caught.[20]

Returning to the mess, the boys, as common responsibility of all male citizens of Sparta, were constantly surrounded by “fathers, tutors, and governors.”[21] At dinner, the boys were quizzed on virtues and vices, commanded to answer in a simple and honest style now called laconic (after Lacedaemon). Often these questions demanded that they pass judgment on the conduct of the citizenry. Those without response were deemed deficient in the “will to excellence,” as if any lack of response, whether out of respect or ignorance, was product of an insufficiently critical mind.[22]

In Lycurgan Sparta, the warriors governed because war, and the preparation for war, had made them the most virtuous. Lycurgus is credited with codifying the value of a life cleansed of all superfluous trappings. The life so essentialized not only became the perfect hoplite warrior, moving in concert with his cohorts, but also the most virtuous and reliable citizen. This is because Spartan war training was designed primarily to toughen the mind against fear, adversity, and pain, leaving clarity and the confidence of conquering any foe in any situation.[23]

Steven Pressfield’s Polynikes explains this conception of model citizen:

War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war calls forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all that is base and ignoble.[24]

But what of Spartan men who did not meet these noble and honorable ideals? Xenophon explains that, in Sparta, the cowardly man was, in fact, a man without a city. He was shunned in all areas of public life, including the messes, ball games, gymnasia, and assemblies. This fact of life can be discerned in the “official” Spartan belief that honorable death was more valuable than ignoble life.[25] Xenophon sums the entire Lycurgan social system thus: to ensure “that the brave should have happiness, and the coward misery.”[26] Whereas in Fascist Italy, cowardly men might have been encouraged to “be courageous” in one’s own context, in Sparta, men had only one avenue to courage – war and training for war.

The agōgē has been central to academic and popular visions of Sparta from antiquity to modernity, and justifiably so. The Romans were so enchanted with the agōgē that Roman tourists traveled to Sparta just to visit its sites and temples (Artemis and the Dioscuri each played important roles in the boys’ religious instruction). Indeed, by 100 (A.D.) Rome had re-established the agōgē in Sparta and used it as a finishing school for noble Roman boys. It is only thanks to this period of the agōgē that we know anything about its Classical glory.[27]

And, even though we have been forced to speculate from the few anecdotes provided by Plutarch and Xenophon as to the content of agōgē training, we have a clear delineation of its purpose. As Plutarch explains it, the agōgē was a systematic training regimen in which boys and young men learned warring skills (including the discipline, sense of duty, and leadership already discussed) as well as “the most important and binding principles which conduce to the prosperity and virtue of a city.” These were not merely taught through lecture and regurgitation, but “implanted in the habits and training of [the boys],” through which “they would remain unchanged and secure, having a stronger bond than compulsion”.[28] As Lycurgus is thought to have summarized the agōgē’s rationale: “A city will be well-fortified which is surrounded by brave men and not by bricks.”[29]

Just as the content of the agōgē is speculative, it seems that so to is Lycurgus’ understanding of the links between conceptual and bodily vitality. For up to now, it has only been demonstrated that Lycurgus sought to defeat weakness and vice with strength and nobility. However, Lycurgus’ understanding of the body and mind is best demonstrated by the fate of Spartan women and infants.

As suggested above, sons were not the property of the father in Lycurgan Sparta, but the common property of the state. Unlike other Greek and Roman states, in Sparta the decision to raise a child rested with a council of elders who checked babies for health and stamina. If one was ill born and deformed it was discarded, as life “which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength was of no advantage either for itself or the state.”[30]

In many cases, Spartan children were not even the product of random parentage, “but designed to spring from the best there was.” Eugenics. During his time of exile, Lycurgus noticed something peculiar about Greek men. In Athens, Plutarch explains, he saw men arguing over the particular breeding stock of certain dogs and horses. And yet, these same men sired children even though “foolish, infirm, or diseased, as though children of bad stock did not owe their badness to their parents.”[31] Marriages and births were carefully regulated, then, always with an eye to the physical and political wellbeing of the city.

Because of the Lycurgan exaggeration of the Greek educational ideal, Plutarch exclaimed that the education of Spartan children began before birth – an extraordinary concept, considering the 7th Century (B.C.) context. In reality it began prior to conception. Which brings us to Spartan women as mothers. Uniquely in the Classical Greek world, Spartan women exercised alongside men. They ran, wrestled, and threw the discuss and javelin, so that they might struggle successfully and easily with childbirth, and that their offspring would have a “vigorous root in vigorous bodies.”[32]

Lycurgus had a well-conceived eugenic rationale, believing that the human body would grow taller when unburdened by too much nutrition. Things that are well fed, he noticed, tend to grow thick and wide, both of which went against ideals of beauty and divinity. Thus, while leanness marked the human form as most beautiful, it also gave it a kinship with the divine. However, for mothers and their offspring, the benefits were also mundane, as mothers who exercised were thought to have lean children because the lightness of the parent matter made the offspring more susceptible to molding.[33]

After birth, infants were reared without swaddling so that their limbs would develop freely and robustly.[34] Boys in the agōgē wore a simple loin wrap, and men little more. The scores of near-naked men, boys, and unswaddled babies were joined by scores of near-naked women and girls. Perhaps Lycurgus’ most delicious transvaluation of decadent values is his command that in Sparta, the healthy condition of one’s body was to be more esteemed than the costliness of one’s clothes.[35] Nakedness and a strict code of physical beauty – that equated beauty with nobility – seem like potent stimuli to health; to say nothing of the belief that one’s commitment to beauty and nobility was of great benefit to oneself, one’s offspring, and one’s people.

Lycurgus believed that scant dress encouraged in women the habit of living with simplicity. More so, however, he wanted Spartan women to have an ardent desire for a healthy and beautiful body. And because the path to health and beauty led to the gymnasia and sports field, a beautiful female body ensured that the bearer of such possessed “bravery, ambition, and a taste of lofty sentiment.”[36]

Nowhere in the ancient world were women so integrated in the social and political rationale of a people. As a result of the Lycurgan reforms, Spartan girls were educated to similar principles and standards of courage, discipline, and honor, as the boys. They were literate. They performed public rituals to Artemis and Apollo. They were athletic enough to win medals at the Olympic games – even when competing against men. And they were known for their “vitality, grace, and vigor.”[37]

Meanwhile in Athens, girls received no education beyond the domestic duties of a wife and mother. And they lived sequestered lives, with no thought of how their physical degeneration might adversely affect Athens.[38] Thus the scandalous response provoked by Spartan women. For it is the state of women that provoked the idea that Spartan men were mere slaves to women.[39] But it is also the source of the sentiment, expressed so succinctly by Zack Snyder’s Gorgo, that “Only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Incidentally, the line comes from Plutarch and not Frank Miller.[40]

Lycurgus used political philosophy and physiology to fight degeneration. And while Sparta may seem a frightening place to modern men, this is precisely its value. For Sparta stands apart as the singular place that valued the bodily and conceptual nobility of its citizens above all else.

Plutarch described the legacy of Lycurgan Sparta as an example of what is possible when an entire people lives and behaves in the fashion of a single wise man training himself for war.[41] Wisdom, training, and war: three of the Classical traits most damned by modernity – at least as they were understood and practiced by Classical peoples. Above it was suggested that the lessons of Sparta would be read equally as shocking to a Roman as to an American. Yet, this is perhaps not quite true; and the reason is in the nature of Plutarch’s statement about Sparta acting as a single wise man. For, in effect, this was Plutarch’s explanation of the efficacy of the Lycurgan reforms. Just as his portrayal of Lycurgus’ seizure of power focused on Apollo’s blessing and the will of a handful of men, so here Plutarch sees no modern systemic rationale at work; but instead a natural path of choice for truly noble men.

For, according to Plutarch, what Lycurgus did was to establish a divinely sanctioned ethical aristocracy at the expense of a monetary aristocracy. This was an aristocracy into which one must be born, but also for which one must be born. Lycurgus incorporated each living Spartan into the aristocracy, by virtue of being alive. A Spartan boy would know himself worthy of the nobility being demanded of him simply because he had been selected at birth and progressed through the training of the agōgē. One can imagine that the harshness and forcefulness of Spartan life would have been accepted far more readily by one given a hereditary and ethical rationale for inclusion and acceptance than by liberated and atomized modern men.[42]

There is another aspect of Sparta that discomforts modern men even more than the equation of wisdom and war training, however: purity. In the 300 years of strict adherence to the Lycurgan reforms, no Spartan was allowed to live beyond Spartan territory. What’s more, no foreigners without a useful purpose were allowed to stay in Sparta overnight. None of them were allowed to teach vices.

For along with strange people, strange doctrines must come in; and novel doctrines bring novel decisions, from which must arise [disharmony within] the existing political order. Therefore [Lycurgus] thought it more necessary to keep bad manners and customs from invading and filling the city than it was to keep out infectious diseases.[43]

This desire for social purity also works as part of Lycurgus’ system of ethical and physiological transformation. For there is no reason to believe that noble men and women are made less so in an environment that provides only for their nobility. Imagine, instead, that the body becomes what its environment expects and demands of it. Harshness is the only thing productive of bodily vitality. Lycurgus believed that similar bodily harshness was also productive of conceptual nobility. So, instead of teaching such values in a cesspool and hoping that nature would provide a few prime examples each generation, Lycurgus took on nature, providing an environment that afforded Sparta the “good” in every citizen. This meets the definition of utopia, but unlike unnatural, modern, egalitarian utopia, Lycurgus’ Spartan utopia was hyper-natural. As was his ethical aristocracy.

The attainment of a high standard of noble living was a public duty. Youth were often the products of selective breeding, and it was demanded that all people be fit and vital. The greatest and most noble sentiments and characteristics available to man were attainable only through physical exertion and warlike action. Beauty was reserved for the worthy and actively denied the unworthy. In sum, it was demanded that men and women be as noble as was physically and conceptually possible.[44] And, while Fascist Italy did not go as far to promote the “eugenic improvement” of fascists, it too understood the relationship between ethics, behavior, and environment. Oddly enough, postmodern science agrees, even if it would use this knowledge to promote a global bourgeois community devoid of strife. Nonetheless, the next paper in this series will explain how the chemistry of the body is influenced by environment, opening great possibilities for placing the body directly at the center of a war against bourgeois modernity; and further, at the mercy of Nietzsche’s understanding of instincts, the body, and conceptual vitality.

Notes

[1] Plutarch, Lives (Volume One), trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), 269.

[2] Plutarch 205–17.

[3] Plutarch 219–21.

[4] Xenophon, Scripta Minora, trans. E.C. Marchant (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 169.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Writings from the Period of Unfashionable Observations, trans. Richard T. Gray (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 293.

[6] Giuseppe Bottai, “Twenty Years of Critica Fascista,” in A Primer of Italian Fascism, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp, trans. Schnapp, Sears, and Stampino (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 192.

[7] Plutarch 227–29.

[8] Plutarch 231.

[9] Plutarch 279.

[10] Plutarch 231.

[11] Plutarch 281.

[12] Plutarch 231.

[13] Plutarch 233.

[14] Xenophon 141.

[15] Plutarch 257.

[16] Xenophon 143.

[17] Plutarch 261.

[18] Xenophon 145.

[19] Nigel M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 131.

[20] Kennel 179.

[21] Plutarch 259.

[22] Plutarch 263.

[23] Plutarch 267.

[24] Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 137.

[25] Xenophon 167.

[26] Xenophon 165.

[27] Kennell 117–39.

[28] Plutarch 241.

[29] Plutarch 267.

[30] Plutarch 255.

[31] Plutarch 253.

[32] Plutarch 245–47.

[33] Plutarch 261.

[34] Plutarch 255.

[35] Xenophon 161.

[36] Plutarch 247.

[37] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece (New York: The Overlook Press, 2003), 36–37.

[38] Cartledge 36.

[39] Xenophon 163.

[40] Plutarch 247.

[41] Plutarch 297.

[42] Nietzsche 363.

[43] Plutarch 289.

[44] Xenophon 169.

 


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jeudi, 25 octobre 2012

Leonidas & the Spartan Ethos

gerard11.jpg

Leonidas & the Spartan Ethos

By Theodore J. O'Keefe

Ex: http://www.counter-currents.com/

The Persian rider edged his horse cautiously forward. Just ahead the coastal plain dwindled to a narrow passage between the mountains and the sea, scarcely wider than a carriage track. Somewhere within the pass, the Greeks had massed to deny the Persians entry. It was the duty of the horseman to determine the size and disposition of their forces. Xerxes, his lord, the emperor of the Persians, knew that if his troops could force the pass, which the Greeks called Thermopylae, his armies could then stream unchecked into the heart of Greece.

The scout caught his breath as he sighted the Greeks in the western end of the pass. His trepidation gave way to surprise as he looked more closely. There were only about 300 of them, arrayed before a wall which blocked further access to the pass, and they were behaving most oddly. Some, stripped naked, performed exercises, like athletes before a contest. Others combed their long, fair hair. They gave their observer no notice.

Were these the vaunted Spartans? The Persian turned his horse and rode back to the imperial camp.

Xerxes received the scout’s report with undisguised amazement. The behavior of the Greeks seemed impossible to account for. Until now his advance down the northern coast of Greece had resembled a triumphal procession. City after city had submitted with the symbolic offering of earth and water. When at last the Greeks seemed disposed to stand and fight, their most gallant soldiers, the Spartans, were conducting themselves more like madmen than warriors.

The emperor summoned Demaratus, who had been a king of the Spartans until his involvement in political intrigues had forced him to flee to the Persian court. While Xerxes listened from his golden throne, Demaratus spoke of the Spartans:

“Once before, when we began our march against Greece, you heard me speak of these men. I told you then how this enterprise would work out, and you laughed at me. I strive for nothing, my lord, more earnestly than to observe the truth in your presence; so hear me once more. These men have come to fight us for possession of the pass, and for that struggle they are preparing. It is the common practice for the Spartans to pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives. But I assure you that if you can defeat these men and the rest of the Spartans who are still at home, there is no other people in the world who will dare to stand firm or lift a hand against you. You have now to deal with the finest kingdom in Greece, and with the bravest men.”

The year was 480 B.C. During the previous three years Xerxes had assembled what promised to be the mightiest military force the world had ever seen, drawn from every corner of his far-flung realms. Modern historians are properly skeptical of the millions of soldiers and sailors meticulously enumerated by the great historian Herodotus, and of his endless catalogs of camel-riding Arabs, trousered Scythians, and frizzy-haired Ethiopians. Nevertheless, Herodotus’ account gives dramatic expression to the feeling of the Greeks that all the numberless, swarthy hordes of Africa and Asia were advancing on them.

Ten years before, the Athenians, who had aroused the wrath of Xerxes’ father and predecessor, Darius, by aiding their Ionian Greek cousins of Asia Minor in an unsuccessful revolt against their Persian overlords, had all but annihilated a Persian punitive expedition at Marathon, a few miles from Athens. It was Xerxes’ purpose to avenge that defeat and to crush the power of the impudent Hellenes, as the Greeks called themselves, once and for all.

There was more to it than that. Xerxes was a Persian, an Aryan, of the noble Achaemenid line, descended ultimately from the same race as the Hellenes. His ancestors had ranged the mountains and steppes of Iran and Central Asia, proud and free.

But as the Persians had increased their power and then wrested the great empire of the Near East from the Babylonians, their kings had fallen prey to the power and the regalia and the idea of empire. Once the Iranian leaders had regarded themselves, and been regarded, as first among Aryan equals. Now his fellow Persians, like all his other subjects, abased themselves at Xerxes’ feet. And like his imperial predecessors, Xerxes intended to make the remainder of the known world do the same.

As the Persian army moved ponderously across the great bridges with which the emperor had joined Europe and Asia at the Dardanelles, the Hellenes hesitated. Xerxes had accompanied the exertions of his engineers with a diplomatic campaign. While his engineers built the Dardanelles bridges and dug a canal across the Acte peninsula in Thrace by which his fleet could circumvent the stormy cape, his diplomats worked to promote defeatism in Greece. Argos and Crete promised to stay neutral, and the priestess of Delphi muttered gloomy oracles of Persian conquest.

The delegates from the Hellenic city-states who gathered at the Corinthian Isthmus in the spring of 480 were at first divided as to their course of action. The Peloponnesians were for guarding only their southern peninsula, while the Athenians and their allies on the neighboring island of Euboea pressed for an expedition to the north of Greece. Eventually the congress of diplomatic representatives agreed to dispatch a joint force of Athenians and Peloponnesians to the Vale of Tempe, in northern Thessaly, which seemed a fit place to bar the Persians’ way from Macedonia into Greece.

At Tempe, to their dismay, the Hellenes found that other passes afforded the invader entry into Hellas from the north. As the Greek contingent retreated to the south, the northern Greeks abandoned their determination to resist and submitted to the Persian emperor.

As Xerxes’ forces began to advance south from Macedonia into Greece, the Greeks were thrown into something of a panic. Following their first contact with the numerically superior Persian fleet, the Greek navy fled down the straits between Euboea and the Greek mainland. Only the loss of a considerable number of the Persian ships in a storm off the Artemisian cape at the northern tip of Euboea emboldened the Hellenic fleet to sail northward to face the enemy once more. In the meantime the Athenians made plans to evacuate their population to the islands of Salamis and Aegina to the southwest.

One force remained in the field to confront the Persians with determined opposition: Leonidas, king of the Spartans, had occupied the crucial pass at Thermopylae.

The gateway from northern to central Greece, Thermopylae stretched more than four miles between the towering wall of Mt. Oeta and the waves of the Malian Gulf. At both its eastern and western extremities, the pass contracted to a narrow, easily defended pathway. For much of the intervening distance, the pass billowed out into a broader expanse. Here there were a number of thermal springs, both salt and sulfur, from which Thermopylae derived its name, which means “hot gates.”

The garrison which held Thermopylae was at first considerably larger than the 300 Spartans whom the Persian scout had glimpsed at the western entrance to the pass. Behind the wall, which the Greeks had hastily rebuilt after occupying the pass, and along the ridge of Mt. Oeta, Leonidas had stationed nearly 7000 troops. About half of them were men from Sparta’s neighbor cities in the Peloponnesus. The rest were Boeotians from Thebes and Thespiae in central Greece, or hailed from nearby Phocis and Locris.

Although their Greek allies were many times more numerous, Leonidas and his Spartan guard formed the backbone of the Hellenic defense force. In recognition of the peril attending their mission, the 300 consisted exclusively of men with living male heirs, so that names and bloodlines would be carried on if they fell. Leonidas and his men were the elite of an elite, and on their example would depend the conduct of the other Greeks at Thermopylae.

What manner of men were the Spartans, that Xerxes hesitated to pit his myriads against their hundreds?

The origins of Sparta are shrouded in the mists of Greek antiquity, but it is certain that Sparta was founded by the Dorians. The last wave of Hellenic migrants from the north, the Dorians swept their Greek predecessors, the Achaeans, westward into Attica and Asia Minor. From the time of the Dorian migrations, the traditional division of the Hellenes into Dorians, Ionians, and Aeolians begins to take shape.

The Dorians were probably more Nordic in type than the other Greek tribes. As the great classicist Werner Jaeger wrote, “The Dorian race gave Pindar [the great poet of Thebes] his ideal of the fair-haired warrior of proud descent.” As Jaeger implies, the Dorians—above all those in Sparta—placed a premium on the preservation and improvement of their native stock.

One branch of the Dorians invaded the district of Laconia in the southeastern Peloponnesus. In the words of the great historian J. B. Bury, “The Dorians took possession of the rich vale of the Eurotas, and keeping their own Dorian stock pure from the admixture of alien blood reduced all the inhabitants to the condition of subjects. . . . The eminent quality which distinguished the Dorians from the other branches of the Greek race was that which we call ‘character’; and it was in Laconia that this quality most fully displayed and developed itself, for here the Dorian seems to have remained more purely Dorian.”

The city of Sparta arose from the amalgamation of several neighboring villages along the Eurotas. The Spartans gradually came to wield political power over the other Dorians in Laconia, the so-called perioeci, who nevertheless retained some degree of self-government and ranked as Laconian, or Lacedaimonian, citizens.

Not so the racially alien helots, the pre-Dorian inhabitants of Laconia, whom the Spartans reduced to serfdom and denied all political rights. The helots bore their servitude grudgingly and threatened constantly to revolt and overthrow their masters. To contain the helots’ revolutionary inclinations, the Spartans organized periodic campaigns, containing something of the spirit of both the fox hunt and the pogrom, in which their young men were given free rein to wreak havoc and eliminate the more truculent and dangerous of their serfs.

During the eighth century, the Dorians conquered the Messenians, who had occupied the remainder of the southern Peloponnesus. A century later, they suppressed a Messenian uprising only after a long and difficult war. From that time on, constrained to manage their own helots and the unruly Messenians as well, the Spartans evolved a unique ethos involving both the preservation of their racial integrity and a comprehensive system of military education and organization.

To a greater extent than any state before or since, the Spartans safeguarded and improved their biological heritage with an uncompromising eugenics program. Marriage outside the Spartan racial community was forbidden, nor was immigration tolerated. There were penalties for celibacy and late marriage, while men who fathered several children could be exempted from standing watch at night, and even from paying taxes.

The Spartans required that the newborn be presented for inspection by officers of the state. Sickly or deformed offspring were left to die.

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, made even further provisions for healthy progeny, which continued to be adhered to in classical times. After describing the chaste upbringing of young Spartans of both sexes, Plutarch continues:

After guarding marriage with this modesty and reserve, he [Lycurgus] was equally careful to banish empty and womanish jealousy. For this object, excluding all licentious disorders, he made it, nevertheless, honorable for men to give the use of their wives to those whom they should think fit, so that they might have children by them. . . . Lycurgus allowed a man who was advanced in years and had a young wife to recommend some virtuous and approved young man, that she might have a child by him, who might inherit the good qualities of the father, and be a son to himself. On the other side, an honest man who had love for a married woman upon account of her modesty and the well-favoredness of her children, might, without formality, beg her company of her husband, that he might raise, as it were, from this plot of good ground, worthy and well-allied children for himself. And indeed, Lycurgus was of a persuasion that children were not so much the property of their parents as of the whole commonwealth, and, therefore, would not have his citizens begot by the first-comers, but by the best men that could be found; the laws of other nations seemed to him very absurd and inconsistent, where people would be so solicitous for their dogs and horses as to exert interest and to pay money to procure fine breeding, and yet kept their wives shut up, to be made mothers only by themselves, who might be foolish, infirm, or diseased; as if it were not apparent that children of a bad breed would prove their bad qualities first upon those who kept and were rearing them, and well-born children, in like manner, their good qualities.

As might be gathered, the women of Sparta were regarded, first of all, as the mothers of Spartan children. The young women were educated for childbearing. They engaged in vigorous gymnastic exercises and dances, often while nude, to the scandal of the other Greeks, although the Spartan women were proverbial for their chastity. Doubtless in consequence of heredity as well as a carefully cultivated physical fitness, the women of Sparta were accounted the most beautiful in Hellas.

Despite the emphasis on their role as mothers, Sparta’s women were the freest in Greece. Indeed, they were accused of dominating the Spartan men. When Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, was so taunted, she summed up the situation of the Spartan women succinctly: “We rule men with good reason, for we are the only women who bring forth men.”

The men of Sparta were raised to be soldiers. They left the management of commercial affairs and the trades to the perioeci and devoted themselves exclusively to the business of government and war. Each Spartan citizen supported himself from a hereditary plot of land, farmed by the helots, which could not be alienated by sale or division.

Between the ages of seven and twenty the Spartans received their soldierly training. They acquired far more than a mechanical mastery of military skills. Their instructors strove to inculcate in their cadets an absolute devotion to Sparta, the ability to endure any hardship, and an unwavering courage on the battlefield.

To keep the young men on their mettle, the Spartan training system played off the exigencies of discipline against the defiant and adventurous spirit of youth. Young Spartans were compelled to steal their food, yet subjected to severe punishment if they were caught, a seeming paradox epitomized in the story of the Spartan boy who let the fox he concealed under his cloak tear at his vitals rather than give himself away. The Spartan school was a cruel but effective one, for it caught its students up in the enthusiasm of constant challenge and danger.

When he reached the age of 20 the young Spartan became a full-fledged soldier. For the next ten years he lived the barracks life with his comrades. Allowed to take a wife, he saw her only during brief and furtive visits. In times of peace, the young men were instructors to the Spartan boys.

On his thirtieth birthday the Spartan was invested with the remainder of his civic rights and duties. Thenceforth he attended the apella, the assembly of the people, and could vote on measures proposed by the two kings or by the ephoroi, Sparta’s five-man judiciary. The Spartan could at last establish his own household, although still bound to dine in common with his peers.

The principal fare at these communal messes was a black broth much favored by the Spartans, although the other Hellenes found it hard to stomach. (After sampling it a visitor from opulent Sybarisis supposed to have exclaimed, “Now I know why Spartans have no fear of death!”)

The Spartans spiced their meals with a dry and pithy wit renowned through Hellas as much for its substance as for its sting. As Plutarch tells it, Lycurgus replied to a Spartan who had advocated democracy, “Begin, friend, and set it up in your family.” Or, as the Spartan women are supposed to have said when handing their sons their shields before they marched to battle, “With it or on it.”

Spartan law reinforced its citizens’ contempt for luxury by banning private ownership of gold and silver. The result, according to Plutarch, was that “merchants sent no shiploads into Laconian ports; no rhetoric-master, no itinerant fortune-teller, no harlot-monger, or gold- or silver-smith, engraver, or jeweler, set foot in a country that had no money; so that luxury, deprived little by little of that which fed and fomented it, wasted to nothing and died away of itself.” Like the Spartans’ wills, their coins were made of iron.

Sparta’s military life did not stifle the minds and spirits of its citizens. Early in its history Sparta was a leading center of poetry and music. Terpander and Alcman brought the lyre and lyric from Asia Minor to the banks of the Eurotas. Lame Tyrtaeus, Lacedaimon’s native son, shaped his country’s ethos with his martial songs. Choral songs and dances carried on, in which the Spartan men melodically affirmed their patriotism, and the Spartan maidens urged them on to future deeds of valor. Rightly Pindar sang of Sparta:

“Councils of wise elders here, /And the young men’s conquering spear, / And dance, and song, and joy appear.”

It was not so much the Spartans’ works of art as the Spartan ideal which won the admiration of great Hellenic thinkers such as Plato. There was something noble in the stem simplicity of the Spartan way of life. Sparta’s fundamental laws, the rhetroi, which Lycurgus was said to have received direct from “golden-haired Apollo,” were few, unwritten, and to the point. Their purpose, to mold men of character in the service of the common good, struck a responsive chord through allHellas.

It is not difficult to detect in the wistful praise the Hellenes paid to Sparta a longing for the values and uses of their Indo-European forebears. Outside of Sparta these had all too often been forgotten amid the lures of Oriental luxury, or lost forever due to mixing of Hellenic blood. The Spartans, just as they transformed the rough-hewn, wooden longhouses of their northern ancestors into gleaming Doric temples, developed from their innate, racial outlook a guide and bulwark for their state.

And, of course, it was on the battlefield that the Spartan arete, or manly excellence, found its chief expression. The Spartans asked not how many the enemy were, but only where they were. They were ignorant of surrender, but knew well how to die.

But let Plutarch speak once more: “It was at once a magnificent and a terrible sight to see them march on to the tune of their flutes, without any disorder in their ranks, any discomposure in their minds, or change in their countenances, calmly and cheerfully moving with the music to the deadly fight. Men in this temper were not likely to be possessed by fear or any transport of fury, but with the deliberate valor of hope and assurance, as if some divinity were attending and conducting them.”

Such were the men who faced Xerxes and his host atThermopylae.

Xerxes waited for four days, in the hope that the Greeks would abandon their position, as they had in Thessaly. His attempt at psychological warfare was lost on the Spartans. When a fearful Greek from the surrounding countryside informed the Spartan Dieneces that “so many are the Persian archers their arrows blot out the sun,” Dieneces was unperturbed: “If the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.”

On the fifth day, seething with anger at the Greeks’ impertinence, Xerxes sent forth an assault force of Medes and Cissians, Iranian kindred to his own Persians.

Xerxes’ troops stormed the western gate to Thermopylae with a valor exceeding their skill in combat. The Spartans met and overwhelmed them in the narrow space between the rocks and the water. Well armored, wielding their long spears expertly, the Spartan heavy infantry was more than a match for the Iranians with their short swords and wicker shields. The Spartans cut them down by the hundreds at close quarters.

From a neighboring hill, seated on his throne of gold, Xerxes watched the fighting, fuming at what he deemed his soldiers’ incompetence. To bring the matter to a quick end, he ordered his elite guard, the King’s Immortals, forward to the deadly pass. Again the Spartans outfought the emperor’s men.

All at once the Spartans turned and fled, seemingly in panicky confusion. With a shout, the Immortals rushed forward in disarray. But the Spartans were all around them in an instant, and they cut the emperor’s picked troops to pieces. According to Herodotus, Xerxes, watching from his hill, “leapt to his feet three times, in terror for his army.”

The next day’s fighting went no better for the Persians. The Greek allies took turns spelling the Spartans at the western approach, and once again the Hellenes reaped a bloody harvest. As the sun set over the western mountains, the waters of the gulf lapped crimson at the heaps of Persians on the shore.

That night, as Xerxes puzzled bitterly how to break the death grip of the Greeks on Thermopylae, a traitor came forth from a local district, looking for a rich reward. The information he gave the emperor was the doom of the men of Thermopylae.

Ephialtes the Malian revealed to Xerxes the existence of a path over the hills and along the crest of Mt. Oetato the rear of Thermopylae. The path was not unknown to Thermopylae’s defenders, and Leonidas had stationed the Phocian troops along Mt.Oela’s ridge to ward off enemy attempts to flank his forces in the pass.

At dawn the next morning, the Phocians heard the sound of marching feet advancing through the fallen leaves which carpeted the floor of the oak forest below the summit of Mt. Oeta. As the Greeks sprang to arm themselves, the Immortals, their ranks reinforced, rushed up the mountainside. The Phocians retreated to the highest point on Mt. Oetaunder a hail of Persian arrows, but the emperor’s picked troops disdained to close with them. Swerving to the left, they made their way down the mountain to a point east of Thermopylae’s rear approach. The Hellenes in the pass were trapped between two Persian forces.

Leonidas learned of the threat from his lookouts along Mt. Oeta and stragglers from the Phocian contingent. He quickly took stock of the changed circumstances. It was evident to the Spartan king that the pass could not be held much longer. The Greeks to the south had need of the troops engaged in Thermopylae’s defense.

But there were other considerations. Leonidas and his 300 men were first of all Spartans. The laws and customs of their native city bade them to conquer or die at the posts assigned them, whatever the superiority of the enemy’s numbers. And there was an oracle, made known at the outset of the Persian invasion, which prophesied that Sparta or a Spartan king must fall in the coming conflict.

Leonidas dismissed the allied troops, all but the men of Thebes and Thespiae. The remainder of the Peloponnesians, as well as the Phocians and Locrians, made their way across the hills between the Persian armies, to fight again another day.

The next morning, after Xerxes had poured a libation to the rising sun, his men stormed Thermopylae from both sides. Scornful of their own lives, Leonidas and his men surged out to meet the Persians on the open ground before the narrow entrance to the pass. Godlike the Spartans swept forward, cutting a swath through the enemies’ ranks. Again they exacted a fearful toll, as the Persian officers drove their men on from the rear, making liberal use of their whips.

The Hellenes fought with reckless courage and with grim determination. When their spears splintered and broke, they fought on with their swords. Leonidas fell, and a fierce struggle raged over the body of the Spartan king. Four times the Persians were repulsed, and many of their leaders, including two of Xerxes’ brothers, were slain.

Gradually the remaining Spartans, bearing the fallen Leonidas, fell back to a small elevation within the pass. There they made a last stand. Beside them fought the brave citizens of Thespiae. The Thebans covered themselves with disgrace by throwing down their arms and submitting abjectly to Xerxes.

After a short but furious resistance, the Spartans and the Thespians were annihilated by the swarming Persian infantry. When all was still, and Xerxes walked among the dead on the battleground he had until then avoided, the Persian emperor was stricken with anger at the tenacity which Leonidas had displayed in thwarting his imperious will. He ordered the Spartan king beheaded, and his head fixed on a stake.

Once more Xerxes summoned Demaratus.

“Demaratus,” he began, “you are a good man. All you said has turned out true. Now tell me, how many men of Lacedaimon remain, and are they all such warriors as these fallen men?”

“Sire,” Demaratus replied, “there are many men and towns in Lacedaimon. But I will tell you what you really want to know: Sparta alone boasts eight thousand men. All of them are the equals of the men who fought here.”

When Xerxes heard this he paled. The memory of Demaratus’s words must have been much with him during the next few months, until Leonidas’ Spartan comrades avenged him at the climactic battle of Plataea and drove the Persian horde forever from Hellenic soil.

The Greeks erected several monuments at Thermopylae, bearing suitable inscriptions. A lion marked the spot where Leonidas perished. But it was the marker the Spartans raised to the memory of their 300 countrymen which best evokes the spirit of their people. With laconic brevity it read:

“Wanderer, if you come to Sparta, tell them there / You have seen us lying here, obedient to their laws.”

Source: Kevin Alfred Strom, ed., The Best of Attack! and National Vanguard Tabloid (Arlington, Va.: National Vanguard Books, 1984), pp. 127-130.

 


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URL to article: http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/10/leonidas-and-the-spartan-ethos/

jeudi, 05 mai 2011

Sippenpflege in Athen und in Sparta

Sippenpflege in Athen und in Sparta

Hans Friedrich Karl Günther

Ex: http://centrostudilaruna.it/

Eine attische Sippenpflege [läßt sich im ganzen Hellenentum wahrnehmen], wenn auch nirgends so entschieden wie in Sparta, ein Rassenglaube, den Jacob Burckhardt so bezeichnet und eingehender dargestellt hat. Dieser Rassenglaube, ein Vertrauen zu den ausgesiebten Anlagen der bewährten Geschlechter und die Gewißheit, daß leibliche Vortrefflichkeit als ein Anzeichen geistigen und seelischen Vorrangs gelten dürfe, überdauert in Athen und bei anderen hellenischen Stämmen die Zeiten der Adelsherrschaft und der Tyrannis und reicht bei den Besten noch weit in die Zeiten der Volksherrschaft hinein. In Athens „Blütezeit“, einer Spätzeit der lebenskundlich gesehenen athenischen Geschichte, bricht der Rassenglaube noch einmal bei Euripides hervor. Überall bei den Hellenen verließ man sich „auf den Anblick der Rasse, welche mit der physischen Schönheit den Aus-druck des Geistes verband“ (J. Burckhardt); es gab einen allgemeinen hellenischen Glau-ben „an Erblichkeit der Fähigkeiten“, eine allgemeine hellenische Überzeugung von der Unabänderlichkeit ererbter Eigenschaften: der Wohlgeborene sei durch nichts zu verschlechtern, der Schlechtgeborene durch nichts zu verbessern, und alle Schulung (pai-deusis) bedeute den Anlagen gegenüber nur wenig. Aus diesen Überzeugungen ergab sich die echt hellenische Zielsetzung der „Schön-Tüchtigkeit“ (kalokagathía), dieser Ausruf zuerst für die Gattenwahl und Kinderzeugung, dann für die Erziehung, die eine günstige Entfaltung guter Anlagen verbürgen sollte. Am mächtigsten bricht dieser Rassenglaube bei dem thebanischen Dichter Pindaros hervor (Olympische Ode IX, 152; X, 24/25; XI, 19 ff; XIII, 16; Nemeische Ode 70 ff). Das Auslesevorbild des Wohlgearteten blieb bis in die Zerfallszeiten hinein in den besten Geschlechtern aller hellenischen Stämme bestehen. Die Bezeichnung gennaios enthält wie die lateinische Bezeichnung generosus („wohlgeboren, wohlgeartet“) die Vorstellung edler Artung als ererbter und vererblicher Beschaffenheit (vgl. auch Herodotos 111,81; Sohn XXIII, 20 D). Herodotos (VII, 204) zählt die tüchtigen Ahnen des bei den Thermopylen gefallenen Spartanerkönigs Leonidas auf bis zu Herakles zurück.

Die staatliche Stärke Spartas wurde von den hellenischen Geschichtsschreibern der Siebung, Auslese und Ausmerze des Stammes und seiner Geschlechter zugeschrieben. Xenophon hat in seiner Schrift über die Verfassung der Lakedaimonier (1,10; V, 9) zunächst ausgesprochen, die lykurgischen Gesetze hätten Sparta Männer verschafft, die durch hohen Wuchs und Kraft ausgezeichnet seien, und dann zusammenfassend geurteilt: „Es ist leicht zu erkennen, daß diese [siebenden, auslesenden und ausmerzenden] Maßnahmen einen Stamm hervorbringen würden, überragend an Wuchs und Stärke; man wird nicht leicht ein gesünderes und tauglicheres Volk finden als die Spartaner”. Herodotos (IX, 72) nennt die Spartaner die schönsten Männer unter den Hellenen. Die rassische Eigenart der Spartanerinnen wird durch den um – 650 in Sparta wirkenden Dichter Alkman (Bruchstücke 54) gekennzeichnet, der seine Base Agesichora rühmt: ihr Haar blühe wie unvermischtes Gold über silberhellem Antlitz. Der Vergleich heller Haut mit dem Silber findet sich schon bei Homer. Im 5. Jh. rühmte der Dichter Bakchylides (XIX, 2) die „blonden Mädchen aus Lakonien“. Noch der Erzbischof von Thessalonike (Saloniki), der im 12 Jh. lebende Eustathios, der Erläuterungen zu Homer schrieb, bekundete bei Erwähnung einer Iliasstelle (IV, 141), bei den Spartanern hätten helle Haut und blondes Haar die Zeichen männlichen Wesens bedeutet.

Einsichtige Männer der anderen hellenischen Stämme haben immer die edle Art des Spartanertums anerkannt, selbst dann, wenn ihr Heimatstaat mit Sparta im Kriege lag. Der weitblickende Thukydides (III, 83) beklagt das Schwinden des Edelmuts und der Auf-richtigkeit bei den Dorern während des Peloponnesischen Krieges, den seine Vaterstadt Athen gegen Sparta führte. In ganz Hellas haben die Edlergearteten in Sparta ein Wunschbild besten Hellenentums erblickt. So hat auch Platon gedacht, dessen Vorschläge zu einer staatlichen Erbpflege dem dorischen Vorbilde folgen. Männlichkeit und Staatsgesinnung des Dorertums in Sparta, dessen Bewahrung von Maß und Würde, diese apollinischen Züge eines sich selbst beherrschenden, zum Befehl geschaffenen Edelmannstums: alle diese Wesenszüge sind von den Besten in Hellas bewundert worden. Die gefestigte Einheitlichkeit spartanischen Wesens durch die Jahrhunderte ist aber sicherlich ein Ergebnis der bestimmt gerichteten Auslese im Stamm der Spartaner gewesen, einer bewußten Einhaltung der lykurgischen Ausleserichtung.

* * *

Sorge: Lebensgeschichte des hellenischen Volkes, Pähl 1965, S. 158 f.