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The Helots: Slave Warriors of Ancient Sparta

by May 10, 2022

By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from many of its neighbors. The top of the social pyramid was occupied by the two kings, whose powers were checked by a ‘council of elders’. These elders were chosen from the next class, the Spartiates. Below this aristocratic class was a middle class which was called the Perioeci. The lowest class, which was also the largest, in Spartan society was held a group known as the Helots.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the Helots hailed from a city called Helos. This city is said to have been conquered by the Spartans, and its inhabitants became their first slaves. Subsequent peoples enslaved by the Spartans were also called Helots. The Greek historian, Thucydides, however, gives a different account of the origins of the Helots. According to this writer, the Helots were the descendants of the Messenians who were enslaved by the Spartans during the First Messenian War in the 8th century BC. Another account of the origins of the Helots can be found in Strabo’s Geography. According to this writer, the peoples who were subjected to Spartan rule were initially accorded equal rights. During the reign of Agis I, however, these rights were revoked, and the subjects forced to pay a tribute. All complied, except the people of Helos, who revolted. They were crushed in a war and reduced to slavery.
Map of Sparta
Whilst they are considered as slaves, it has been pointed out that they were somewhat different from other slaves in the neighboring Greek city-states. It is claimed that in Athens, for instance, slaves did not have families and communities of their own. The Helots, by contrast, had their own families and communities. Additionally, the Helots were not privately owned, but belonged to the state. According to Strabo, “the Lacedaemonians held the Helots as state-slave in a way, having assigned to them certain settlements to live in and special services to perform.”
As the male citizens of Sparta devoted their lives to athletic and military training, war, politics, and hunting, they could not afford to spend time on agricultural activities. The task of producing food was left to the Helots. Although the Helots were, generally speaking, peasants, they may be employed for other jobs, such as servants or grooms, as well. Additionally, the Helots could be conscripted into military duties at times of war. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus records that each of the 5000 Spartiate at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was protected by seven light-armed Helots. Thus, there was a total of 35,000 Helots at that battle.
Although the Helots were crucial for the functioning of Spartan society, the other classes had an uneasy relationship with them. Given that the Helots greatly outnumbered their Spartan masters, the possibility of them revolting against their repressive rulers was ever present. The first major Helot revolt took place around 665 BC, and is known as the Second Messenian War (The First Messenian War had ended around 40 years prior to this conflict). The Helots seized on the occasion of Sparta’s defeat by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae to launch a revolt. It took the Spartans nearly 20 years to put down the rebellion.
Given the precarious state of things, the Spartans took precautions to prevent the Helots from revolting. During the Persian Wars, for instance, the Spartans were not too eager to send their hoplites abroad to fight for the freedom of Greece. This was due to the fear that the Helots would revolt when the Spartan army was fighting away from home. Despite these and other precautions, several revolts by the Helots took place over the centuries. When an earthquake struck the Eurotas Valley in 464 BC, the Helots seized this opportunity to revolt. This was the largest revolt recorded. The Helots fortified Mount Ithome, which was besieged by Sparta. The siege only ended five years later when both sides agreed to a truce. The surviving Helots were taken by Athens and settled on Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
Photo of the location of Ancient Sparta
The Site where Ancient Sparta used to Stand. Situated on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese, Greece. Photo by Ronny Siegel, 2013.
Spartan treatment of Helots improved overtime, perhaps as a means of appeasing them. For instance, Helots could hope to be emancipated, and it is known that groups of Helots were sometimes liberated. Nevertheless, the system collapsed in the 4 th century BC. In 371 BC, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The victorious Thebans then invaded the Peloponnese, and the Helots of Messenia were liberated. The last Helots (the Helots of Laconia) were emancipated at the end of the 3rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.

Sparta Vs. Athens

by April 21, 2022

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Emblem of Sparta
Sparta, also known by its ancient name Lacedaemon in honor of their legendary founder, is often considered to have been the most dominant military presence in ancient Greece. Their infantry soldiers were said to have been among the most skilled and fearsome warriors of the ancient world. Dedicating the majority of their lives to perfecting the art of warfare, the ferocity of the Spartan hoplite would grant the city-state several military victories and lead to the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
This obsession with fighting was supported by their culture. The Spartan lifestyle, especially that of the Spartan men, was dedicated to learning the art of fighting and the craft of war. At birth, Spartan babies were examined for weaknesses. If they were deemed frail or deformed, they were tossed into a chasm on Mount Taygetos. At a young age the boys would be taken away from their homes and participate in an education system known as Agoge. In this state mandated training curriculum, young male citizens would be taught how to be a warrior. They were educated in the ways of warfare, fighting as well as reading and writing. They would endure physical hardships and often be submitted to harsh, violent punishments.
Statue of a Spartan
This militaristic state was only possible because of the complex societal structure of Sparta. While native born Spartans enjoyed full rights and freedoms, there were others who were not so fortunate. The Perioikoi were a secondary type of Spartan citizen who, although not full citizens and therefore unable to participate in the Agoge training, still enjoyed freedom in the Spartan community. They acted as skilled craftsmen and reserve warriors when needed.
The Helots were state owned serfs who bordered narrowly on being classified as slaves. The Helots were lower class citizens who were responsible for the agricultural stability of Sparta. It was only through the farming work of the Helots that the other Spartans were able to free up their time to participate fully in military training. Even though the Helots were essential to Spartan society, they were also prone to uprisings and would be a constant source of trouble for the Spartan city.
An interesting note about Spartan society was that women enjoyed a level of freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world. Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers, and they were not restricted to their homes as was common in Athens. The daughters and sisters of Sparta were allowed to play outdoors and even compete in sports. While it was common in other city-states to marry off girls at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan women tied the knot in their late teens or early twenties. This was done as an effort to spare women the health dangers of pregnancies in adolescents. As a result of their superior diet and bountiful exercise, Spartan women often lived into old age more frequently than in any other part of the ancient world.
Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae
Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae
The military contributions of Sparta can not be overemphasized. During the Classical age of Greece, they were unmatched as a land military force, playing decisive roles in several battles during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. Sparta is perhaps best remembered for it’s heroic stand at the battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (along with roughly 6000 other Greek hoplites) fended off the massive Persian army before being outflanked and eventually massacred on the third day of battle. Thermopylae remains one of the most famous last stands of military history and continues to be a topic of fascination for modern classical enthusiasts.

Emblem of Athens
It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered the birthplace of democracy.
Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization; this is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.
Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on the examined life, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was looking for an honest man; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.
While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis where the Athenian commander Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, turning the tides of war in the Greeks favor.
Pericles' Funeral Oration
Pericles’ Funeral Oration
The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However, that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
Death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787
The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.
Whoever you side with there is no doubt that both Athens and Sparta were flourishing civilizations in their own rights. It could be argued that these two city-states were two of the most dominant super powers of the ancient world. We may consider ourselves lucky that their history and rich legacy has survived thousands of years; so that we might peer through the looking glass and witness the glory of our ancestors from a time long past.

Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

by April 19, 2022

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Egyptian city of Alexandria was established in 331 BCE by its Eponymous founder, Alexander the Great. Despite its humble beginnings as a port city, Alexandria developed into one of the most prosperous metropolitan areas in the ancient world. It grew to boast such wonders like the library of Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis, and the Pharos of Alexandria (the lighthouse).
Map of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt
City Plan of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt
Foundation of Ancient Alexandria
In his “Life of Alexander,” Plutarch describes the foundation of the city Alexandria. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, which was part of his campaigns all over the eastern Mediterranean, he planned to settle a large Greek city, “which would bear his name.” Alexander had imagined a city that would be home to men of all nations, and one that would abound in resources. Cleomenes, Alexander’s commander, was left in charge of the construction and expansion of the city. Following in Cleomenes’ footsteps, Ptolemy further built up the city and subsequently his own familial dynasty ruled Egypt from 332-30 BCE.
Pharos of Alexandria
Illustration of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt
Alexandria’s Rise to Prominence
Since Alexandria came to replace the previous Egyptian capital of Memphis, and Tyre, a significant port city, was destroyed by Alexander, the new capital filled a vacuum of both political and commercial means. Alexandria became a lucrative node in the trade network of the Mediterranean, and attracted commerce from the east, north, and west.
This allowed for the local economy to prosper, which in turn led to investments in institutions like the Library of Alexandria. The city was known for attracting scientists, philosophers, artists, and mathematicians (like Euclid!)
Illustration of the library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria, Egypt
Institutions of Alexandria
Of course, one of the most famous products of Alexandria is the library. It was one of the most ambitious projects not only of the ancient world, but even by today’s standards. The Library of Alexandria aimed to collect all the knowledge of the world and house it in a single place. Ptolemy I began work on the library and located it in the royal district of the city. No doubt modeled in grand fashion, we have no surviving accounts of the architecture and can only speculate as to its appearance. With the intent of the library being to collect a copy of every book in the world, it is no surprise that Ptolemy II instituted a practice that required every ship docking at the port to hand over any books on board to be copied out for the collection.
Unfortunately, this gold mine of science, history, math, and literature was destroyed. As the city of Alexandria changes rule several times throughout its history, the new governing body viewed the Library of Alexandria as a threat to their control rather than a fountain of information. The use of the library waned over the years and its reported that several periods of fire took place, destroying scrolls and manuscripts.
Another prominent installation of Alexandria at her height of power was the Serapeum. The temple, which was constructed under Ptolemy III in the 3rd century BCE, was dedicated to the protector of Alexandria, Serapis. Strabo tells us that the temple was housed in the western portion of the city. Like the Library of Alexandria, the Serapeum does not survive and we can only assume what it looked like.
Alexandria Lighthouse Coin
Coin depicting the Lighthouse of Alexandria
However, an article discussing Alexandria would be remiss if it did not include a discussion of the lighthouse of Alexandria. Considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it became the model of lighthouses then and now. The lighthouse, or Pharos, served as a practical component of Alexandria, helping guide ships into her harbors; but it also was a feat of technology, reaching a staggering height and becoming a symbol of the city, as we can see on coin depictions.
Illustration of Roman Alexandria
Ancient Roman Alexandria, Egypt
Roman Alexandria
With the Roman victories in the Punic Wars, Rome reigned supreme in the Mediterranean and Alexandria came under her rule. For roughly two centuries, this didn’t impact the prosperity of Alexandria too terribly much. She still continued to be a prominent port city with a bustling social sphere. It was during the breakdown of the First Triumvirate, though, that we see direct negative sanctions being placed on Alexandria. Pompey’s loss to Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus led to his flight to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. However, he was killed by Ptolemy XIII and Caesar arrived, declaring martial law of the land. In the following years of civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, the city of Alexandria suffered destruction and fires.
After the death of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, and the consolidation of power by Augustus, Alexandria became a province of the Roman Empire, lacking any real political autonomy. The city was rebuilt after the fires and recovered from the internal turmoil of the 1st century BCE, but never quite to the level of pre-Roman occupation.
Illustration of Alexandria Fire
Fire at the library of Alexandria
Decline of Alexandria
Having been such a hot bed for knowledge, learning, and advancements for centuries, Alexandria’s involvement in the Christianity vs. paganism schism does not come as a surprise. Still under Roman rule, Theodosius I outlawed paganism, promoting instead the conversion to Christianity. As Alexandria had been a prosperous and robust city for centuries, temples, sanctuaries, and monuments reflecting the newly outlawed religion abounded. Christians of the city clashed with pagans in Alexandria and the city plunged into religious and ideological distress. Scholars that had once felt safe, encouraged, and supported now fled the city in search of calmer surroundings. The draw of Alexandria as a cultural, political, and commercial center no longer persisted due to the constant religious tension and the city fell by the wayside.
The city of Alexandria certainly had an active history, serving as the stage for political rivalries, scholastic breakthroughs, and religious wars. The longevity of the city’s occupation allowed her to be involved in several events of the wider Mediterranean. Of course, we all dream about what could have been if only the Library of Alexandria were still around today.

A Visit to Miletus

by November 5, 2021

by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Miletus, once one of the greatest cities the world had ever seen, now lies as a ruin on the East Coast of Turkey.
The scale of the remains of Miletus is impressive. and sits as a testament to the power and glory of the ancient Greeks who built this wondrous city.
The Amphitheater is the main attraction of the site, bringing in thousands of visitors per year. It houses around 5300 spectators at a time, and was once the home of legendary Greek plays and concerts.
Behind the Amphitheater is where the city lies. The foundations of the Baths of Faustina, the Mausoleum of Heron III, the storehouse, and the agora can all still be seen among other impressive buildings that are still being excavated.
Runied remains of the Baths of Faustina, Miletus
Runied remains of the Baths of Faustina, Miletus
Home to the famous mathematician Thales of Miletus, the city still shines as a jewel of Western Anatolia.
A Brief History of Miletus
The area which Miletus now stands has been inhabited by humans since the Neolithic period. The first settlements in the province are now inaccessible due to a rise in sea level, and the Meander River, next to which the city stands.
The Amphitheater at Miletus
The Amphitheater at Miletus
The region came under Minoan rule sometime before 1400 BC. These Cretan migrants pushed out the native population who were known only as the Leleges, a pre-literate people of which not much is known. All that is known about the mysterious Leleges people is handed to us via Greek sources that cannot be verified.
It is believed that the Minoans gave Miletus its name. The first written reference to Miletus is a Hittite source who referred to the city as Millawanda or Milawata. After the fall of the Hittite Empire, the Ionian Greeks resettled Miletus in 1000 BC, allegedly by a founder named Neleus of Peloponnesus.
By the Byzantine period, Miletus was raised to an archbishopric, and the Castle Palaton was built on a hillside close to the city.
During the reign of Justinian I (527-565 AD), Miletus was treated to a full-scale renovation. The baths were restored, drainage to the harbor was installed, and old Hellenistic buildings were used in the new construction, making Miletus a puzzle of a site with buildings built from stones across a variety of different periods.
When the Ottomans arrived in the 15th Century, they used Miletus’ harbor to trade with Venice. Venice was one of Turkey’s most important trade partners, and many Ottoman traders settled there permanently, leading to the construction of the Ilyas Bey complex in 1403. The Ilyas Bey Mosque, known as Europe Nostra still stands and has been officially recognized as an important cultural site with special protection.
The Europe Nostra
The Europe Nostra
Miletus was finally abandoned at the end of the 15th Century when the harbor began to silt up and trading overseas was no longer possible. Now, only the ghostly remains of a once-great city still stand, which sits silently with open arms to welcome visitors from all over the world.
The Importance of Miletus
In its prime, Miletus was one of the most important centers of the Greek-speaking world. At the time, Greece was divided into city-states rather than the nation of Greece as we know it today.
Although the Greeks that resided in Miletus were of Ionian descent, Homer refers to the Greeks of Miletus as Carians, described by Herodotus as a population that retained its original Minoan identity, and were akin to the ancient Lydians who had settled the area hundreds of years before.
The Storage Building and South Agora in Miletus
The Storage Building and South Agora in Miletus
In 499 BC, Miletus instigated the Ionian Revolt, and played a key defensive role in the Greco-Persian Wars. Despite being attacked by the Persians in 494 BC, the city survived the ransacking, and achieved a place and status within the Athenian Delian League for its contributions to the Greek victory over the Persians.
It was at this point where Miletus really became Greek, as we understand the ancient Greeks today. It retained a special status within the Greek-speaking world that continued into the Roman period.
Miletus had an impressive harbor that made it a commercial center of trade and a great maritime power, placing the city second only to Ephesus as the most important and influential city in Asia Minor.
Famous Milesians
The Milesian school attracted great thinkers from all over the world. Thales of Miletus is perhaps the most notable figure, considered as one of the legendary Seven Wise Men. Thales is responsible for the acknowledgment of water as a basic element for life, and the famous saying ‘Know Thyself’.
He was most known at the time for his deep knowledge of cosmology, and he advised Milesian seafarers how to navigate the sea using the stars – knowledge that is still used to this day.
He is also said to have been the first to measure the Pyramids at Giza, and predict eclipses – however, these last two references most likely illustrate Thales’ reputation as a wise man rather than historical fact.
As well as the aforementioned Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, the grandfathers of natural philosophy and science were said to have attended the School of Miletus.
Sacred Miletus
To contemporary citizens during the height of its power, Miletus was perhaps best known as a center of worship.
The starting point of the Sacred Way, Miletus was home to the Sacred Gate. Sacred Gates were common across ancient Greece, all named after the famous Sacred Gate that lead from Athens to Eleusis.
Miletus’ Sacred Gate opened the way to the Sacred Road that ran southwards to Panormos Harbor (Now modern-day Akkoy) and turned southeast towards the city of Didyma and the Didymaion, known also as the Temple of Apollo.
The starting point of The Sacred Way that connected Miletus to the nearby town of Didyma.
The starting point of The Sacred Way that connected Miletus to the nearby town of Didyma. The road once stood between the pillars of the now absent Sacred Gate.
The road was lined with statues of the Branchids (priests and priestesses associated with the temple). Lions and sphinxes that also once adorned the sacred way were excavated and on display at the Miletus Museum.
The road was approximately 16.6kn long, and 5 – 7 m wide. The Sacred Way was built for the worshippers of the cult of Artemis and Apollo, who would walk the Sacred Way in honor of the gods and goddesses, and partake in annual celebrations and festivals.
Remnants of the statues that once lined the Sacred Road from Miletus to Didyma.
Remnants of the statues that once lined the Sacred Road from Miletus to Didyma. They now sit in the Museum at Miletus
Host only to a smattering tourists and a handful of tea and trinket sellers, Miletus is among many of the lost gems of the Aegean. This underrated site has many stories to tell, and archaeologists continue to uncover its secrets.

Sparta and… Scotland? Laconic wit through the centuries

by July 13, 2021

By Andrew Rattray
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
The two most powerful city states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, were often at odds with one another
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further.  Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
The lambda on the Spartan shields stood for Lacedaemon, from which we also get the word ‘laconic’
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
The poet Robert Burns
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.   

Ancient Bactria: Battleground For Civilization

by April 14, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient region of Bactria was in what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia. Today, this is a remote, relatively little-known area. In the ancient past, Bactria was a culturally and economically dynamic region of great interest to ancient empires. In fact, Bactria’s contribution to history and civilization from 500 BC. to approximately 500 A.D is immense.

Bactria’s Early History

In the Bronze Age, Bactria was mainly populated by Iranian-speaking people who established urban settlements. The region first enters recorded history under the Persian Achaemenian Empire. During the sixth century BC, Cyrus II subjugated the region, making it a satrapy. Bactria became a province of the Persian Empire for two centuries during which time the area prospered.

Bactrian soldier from the tomb of Xerxes I, circa 470 BC

Its geography to a large extent dictated its social structure, with nomadic peoples living in the plains and tribes inhabiting the mountains. In the fertile valleys, wealthy, sophisticated urban societies developed.  Many scholars believe that Bactria played an important role in the development of Zoroastrianism.

Alexander the Great and Bactria

It appears that Bactria enjoyed a period of peace until the arrival of Alexander the Great. Leading the opposition to the Macedonian was Bessus, who made his last stand in Bactria before his execution. Alexander the Great campaigned in Bactria to secure his position in this rich region, even marrying Roxanne, the daughter of a Bactrian ruler.

Administrative document from Bactria dated to the seventh year of Alexander’s reign, 324 BC, source: Khalili Collection of Aramaic Documents

Alexander built numerous cities in the region and many Greeks and Macedonians came to settle there. Interestingly, there was already a large Greek-speaking minority in Bactria. Indeed, there were more Greeks in Bactria than in regions closer to mainland Greece.

The Rise of Bactrian Greeks

The Seleucid Empire ruled the region for over 70 years after the death of Alexander. The cities founded by the Macedonian conqueror flourished, and so did trade. In about 250 BC, Bactrian satrap Diodotus proclaimed independence and became king. Antiochus III the Great defeated Diodotus’ successor but recognized Bactrian Greek independence.

However, the rise of Parthia cut off the Bactrian Greeks from the rest of the Greek world. Meanwhile, Bactria grew rich and powerful, with a large army and heavy cavalry. It was poised to expand.

Bactrian King Euthydemus I and his son Demetrius crossed into what is now Pakistan, managing to conquer a large part of modern Pakistan and North-West India around 180 BC. These conquests placed a great strain on the Bactrian-Greek kingdom, leading to several revolts.

After a period of civil war that left the Bactrian Greeks divided among themselves, an usurper seized the throne of the kingdom and proclaimed himself King Eucratides I.

Gold 20-stater showing Eucratides. This is the largest-known gold coin from antiquity and was originally found in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Bactrians who had conquered parts of India established a powerful new region, known as the Indo-Greek kingdom, and advanced its territory far into the Ganges Plain in Northern India.

The Decline and Fall of Bactria

After the death of Eucratides I, the kingdom of Bactria fell into near-anarchy, leaving it vulnerable to nomadic invasions. In the second century BC, Indo-European nomads known as the Saka conquered Bactria and ended Greek rule. This invasion saw the burning of several Hellenic cities. The Saka were driven out by the Yuezhi, who had been driven from their homeland by the Xiongnu Confederation. The Yuezhi were deeply influenced by the Greeks and even adopted their alphabet.

In the first century AD, a prince of the Yuezhi, Kujula Kadphises, established the great Kushan Empire. Greek was one of the official languages of this realm. The Indo-Greeks were eventually conquered by the Saka. Small Indo-Greek communities survived until possibly 10 A.D and they adopted Buddhism. The Kushan Empire later conquered much of North-West India. They were later conquered by the Sassanian Persian monarchs who ruled the area until the arrival of the Muslims in the 7th century AD.

The Contribution of Bactria

Bactria was a cross-roads for many cultures. It quickly became a significant hub of trade and great cities such as Balkh were famed for their wealth. Chinese envoys who visited Bactria in the first century BC were amazed by its wealth and sophistication. They noted that the people disliked war, preferring trade and luxurious lifestyles. The merchants of Bactria contributed to the later development of the Great Silk Road.

The Greeks in Bactria, and later in India, played a particularly important role in the development of the region and indeed global culture. They introduced Greek sculpture, architecture, art and thought to the region. They have deeply influenced Classical Indian art and architecture. Bactria was also crucial in the history of Buddhism, especially during the Kushan period.

The Gandhara Buddha, a statue influenced by Greek models

The Kushan Empire was very culturally diverse and eventually adopted Graeco-Buddhism, developed by Bactrian Greeks that ruled kingdoms in India.  The Kushans were great benefactors of Buddhism and they helped to spread the religion into Central Asia and ultimately China. They also helped spread the influence of Graeco-Buddhist art, which still influences Buddhist art to this day.


Bactria is a historical region that has largely been forgotten, yet it played a crucial role in several Empires and the early development of the Silk Road. It was a centre of Greek power and culture despite being very distant from the Mediterranean World. The Bactrian-Greek kingdom developed a thriving culture and economy. Their culture spread into India, where they influenced the region’s art and religion, specifically in the development of Graeco-Buddhism.


Rawlinson, H.G., 2002. Bactria, the history of a forgotten empire. Asian Educational Services.