Slaves of Sparta

Many strange tales have been told about the ancient Spartans. Soldiers had to stand naked in public every ten days to ensure they were fit and ready for battle. Their staple was a broth made from pork boiled in pig’s blood and consumed with salt and vinegar. They kept their hair long to distinguish warriors from manual laborers (they also believed that it made them look more handsome). They had to live in communal barracks until the age of thirty, even if they were married. The bride shaved her head, dressed as a man, and waited for her future husband to arrive and fulfill his marital duties. Disgraced soldiers shaved half their beard and wore rags. And yet, all these bizarre customs pale in comparison to an institution whose existence strains belief; the krypteia.

On neighbors
There is no shortage of famous quotes trying to describe the importance of maintaining good relationships with your neighbors…and what happens when you don’t. Hesiod believed that a bad neighbor was as much of misfortune as a good one is a great blessing. Two millennia later the general opinion was very much the same. G. K. Chesterton claimed that we may be able to choose our friends and our enemies but only God makes our next-door neighbors. Gore Vidal came even closer to the truth of the matter when he argued that it is the nature of things for one’s neighbor to always be the enemy. Especially if the parties involved are the Messenians and the Spartans.

The many Helens of Sparta
The Messenians were Achaeans who lived in southwestern Peloponnese; the Spartans were Dorians who settled in the Eurotas valley. When they ran out of farmable land, they began to have ambitions on the Messenians’ fertile plains and were on the lookout for an opportunity to invade their neighbors’ realm. And since the gods never tire of a good story (and why should you try to invent a new one when you already have a fine precedent), the Spartans were presented with a fine excuse to invade Messene; the abduction not of the most beautiful woman in the world (been there, done that) but a whole troupe of Helens.

The temple of Artemis Limnatis stood on the border between Messene and Laconia. According to the Spartan version of the events, a group of maidens came to the temple to participate in a festival, only to be raped by the Messenians. According to the Messenian version, the maidens were, in fact, beardless Spartan soldiers dressed up as women and armed with daggers. They hoped to assassinate the principal men of Messene, but they were discovered and killed by their would-be victims.

One hundred tripods
For whatever reason (a guilty conscience perhaps?) the Spartans did not invade Messene then. A generation of uneasy peace passed and then the Spartans found another excuse. A man called Euaephnus sold a herd of cows entrusted to his care by Polychares, a wealthy Messenian, and then claimed that pirates had carried off the animals. When the truth was revealed, the Spartan promised to return the value of the herd if only Polychares’ young son would accompany him home to collect the money. As soon as the pair reached Laconia, Euaephnus slew the youth. The Spartans refused all Messenian demands for justice and war broke out.

It took twenty years and an inspired ruse for the Spartans to subdue all resistance. The Messenians controlled the castle at the top of Mount Ithomi, a nearly impregnable position. The war, however, was taking a heavy toll and they decided to seek the advice of the oracle of Delphi. Apollo told them that victory would be with those who first place one hundred tripods around the altar of Zeus. How convenient! The altar was within the walls of their castle. But it took time to make the tripods (of wood since they didn’t have enough bronze). In the meantime, the Spartans heard of the oracle and a Spartan formed one hundred tripods of clay, entered the castle disguised as a Messenian peasant and placed them around the altar. Soon after the Messenians were forced to surrender.

Murderers at large
Magnanimity in victory was as strange a concept to the Spartans as adding a pear to soutzoukakia is to gourmands the world over. They enslaved the survivors and divided their land. The hapless Messenians were now known as helots and were forced to bring “full half the fruit their ploughed land produced”. Their new masters stipulated a degrading dress code that included a cap made of dogskin; they administered a set number of beatings annually regardless of fault to remind helots of their servile status and punished any Spartan who fed his slaves well.

The krypteia was the most abhorrent method devised by the Spartan magistrates to control the helots. From time to time, the ephors sent the most intelligent young men into the country, equipped with little more than their daggers and their cunning. During the day, the Spartans lay quiet in obscure places; in the nighttime though, they came down into the highways and killed every helot they found outside. The most daring even murdered the Messenians as they worked the fields, preferring to go after the sturdiest of them. To justify these actions, the Spartans ritually declared war on the helots on an annual basis.

The great helot massacre
The authorities in Sparta were always apprehensive lest the Messenians rise in revolt. The krypteia was a period of traditional withdrawal from society and an initiation rite into the male institutions of the Spartan society. It was also a method whereby the ephors employed the most intelligent young men to police and terrorize the helot population. Despite their losses and harsh oppression, the Messenians were always too numerous compared to the Spartans and could theoretically prove very dangerous to their masters. The fear and hatred of the Lacedemonians towards their slaves reached its most wretched climax on the eighth year of the Peloponnesian War.

The Spartans were hard pressed by the Athenians and the ephors were apprehensive of a helot revolt. They decided, therefore, to invite any Messenian who had rendered distinguished services in support of Sparta to make his claim known to the authorities, who would grant liberty to the most deserving. Many helots came forward; 2000 were emancipated and led in solemn procession around the temples with garlands on their heads. That was the last time anyone ever saw them. The Spartans used the garlands to single out the most ambitious and brave helots and murdered them all. The manner of their death remains a mystery to the present day.

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The ideal Physician

Hippocrates was born on the Greek island of Cos off the coast of Turkey about four hundred-sixty years before the birth of Christ. It is believed that his father was a physician, as were a number of his ancestors.

It is unclear whether he founded a school for physicians on his home island or joined an established institution. What is certain is that he did become associated with a medical school on Cos that charged a fee to its students to learn the secrets of healing. The reputation of the Hippocratic School at Cos soon spread beyond the island and attracted students from all corners of the Greek world.

The major distinction of the Hippocratic School was its emphasis on an empirical approach to the study of disease and an attempt to rationally deduce its cause. The patient's signs and symptoms were analyzed in order to determine a prognosis of recovery – an approach quite familiar to us today, but novel in ancient Greece where sickness was often viewed as divine retribution for behavior offensive to the Greek gods. The school produced a compendium of writings that helped spread its philosophy throughout ancient Greece and influenced succeeding generations to the point that Hippocrates is known as the "Father of Modern Medicine."

 One modern legacy of the teachings of Hippocrates is the Hippocratic Oath sworn by medical students upon receiving the diploma that distinguishes them as physicians. Although the oath was most probably written after the death of Hippocrates, it represents his teachings and his view of the doctor-patient relationship. Two fundamentals of this relationship are that the physician should always respect his patient and do no harm in his attempt to resolve his patient's malady.

Hippocrates also prescribed how the physician should behave within his community in order to earn the respect of his fellow citizens and elevate his status. The following document describing the ideal behavior of a physician is again believed to have been written after the death of Hippocrates, but represents his teachings on the subject. Its dictates are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.

"His character must be that of a gentleman, and, as such, honorable and kindly towards all."

"The position of a doctor must make him careful to keep his complexion and weight at their correct natural standard. For most people think that those who fail to take care of their own physical condition are not really fit to take care of that of others.

Secondly, he must have a clean appearance, and wear good clothes, using a sweet-smelling scent, which should be a totally unsuspicious perfume. This is pleasant when visiting the sick.

Also he must observe rules about his non-physical effect, not only in being quiet but also in being self-controlled in all aspects of life, for this has the best result on his reputation.

His character must be that of a gentleman, and, as such, honorable and kindly towards all. For people dislike forwardness and interference, even if these qualities sometimes prove useful.

He must also pay attention to his technical ability, for people like the same medicine in small doses.

In facial expression he should be controlled but not grim. For grimness seems to indicate harshness and a hatred of mankind, while a man who bursts into guffaws and is too cheerful is considered vulgar. This must especially be avoided.

He must be just in every social intercourse, and a sense of fairness ought to help him in every dealing.

The relationship between doctor and patient is a close one. Patients submit themselves to doctors, who are always likely to be meeting women and girls, and entering houses with valuable possessions. Towards all these, therefore, he must keep himself under strict self-control.

The above, then, are the physical and psychological requirements for a doctor."


Hippocrates's requirements for a physician appear in Workman, B.K. They Saw it Happen in Classical Times (1964); Bonnard, Andre, Greek Thought (1962); Brunschwig, Jacques, and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd (eds.) Greek Thought (2000).

Originally Posted: Eye Witness History

Famous Greeks: Xenophon, Plato and Philip

After Socrates’s death, his pupils Xenophon and Plato came to believe that Athens had a perverted form of government. Xenophon espoused the idea that monarchy was the best form of government, while Plato developed the ideal of a monarchical government ruled by a philosopher-king. With Philip of Macedonia (382–336 B.C.), monarchy emerged as the dominant political form in the Greek world. As his contemporaries understood, Philip was one of the greatest statesmen in history. He was a master of diplomacy and warfare, cunning, and courageous. He transformed Macedonia from a weak, half-civilized land on the frontiers of Greece into the supreme power in the Greek world. His victory at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. marked the end of the era of the city-state. Of modern political leaders, Philip most calls to mind the German Chancellor Bismarck. Through “blood and iron,” he unified his country. The supreme opportunist, he was nonetheless guided throughout his career by a vision of personal and national power. To the student of leadership, Philip offers one of the most instructive examples in all antiquity.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that great statesmen follow a consistent vision or are they mere opportunists?

2. Why do you think the response of the Athenians after Chaeronea was so different from their response to Xerxes’s offer of peace?

Famous Greeks: The trial of Socrates

In his funeral oration, Pericles celebrated the Athenian democracy for its tolerance. The Athenians treasured freedom of speech as essential to true democracy. Yet this same Athenian democracy put to death its greatest thinker and teacher, Socrates. The previous lecture placed the trial of Socrates in the political climate of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War and Socrates’s close relationship with avowed enemies of democracy. This lecture examines the trial and last days of Socrates. Four dialogues of Plato provide our basic sources: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. These are less a history and more a gospel, written to convince posterity that the Athenians had wrongly put to death “the best, the wisest, and the most just man” of his day. Through Plato, Socrates would prevail over his enemies and prove that evil men may kill a good man but can never harm him.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you think that the dynamic teaching of Socrates had to be institutionalized, so to speak, by Plato in order to make it effective over the long term?

2. By institutionalization, do we mean writing it down and giving a formal structure to the teaching?