The Strange Case of the Unlaconic Laconians

Spartans didn't call themselves Spartans.  Their own name for their nation was Lacedaemon.  (Or Lakedaimon, spelling being variant in these matters.)  A Spartan was a Lacedaemonian.  There were also the short forms Laconia and Laconian.  That's why Spartan shields had the letter lambda (Λ) painted on them.

I prefer to write Spartan rather than Lacedaemonian in my books, and I'm pretty sure you prefer to read Spartan.  But there's an interesting consequence of them being Laconian.

The Laconians had a reputaion for being men of few words.  That's the origin of our word laconic.  When we call someone laconic today, we're saying that they're as short-spoken as a Spartan.

The most famous laconic statement of all occurred at the Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held for 3 days against an army of 100,000.  (No, I'm not exaggerating the Persian side.)  The Spartans were warned that the enemy was so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun, to which one soldier named Dienekes replied this was good, because, "Then we will fight in the shade."

A similar situation arose when Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander) sent a message to Sparta suggesting they submit to him, because, "If I win a war against you, I will enslave you all."  Sparta sent back a single word reply:  If  

Philip decided to give Sparta a miss.

The Spartan characters who appear in Sacred Games are not laconic.  There are several reasons for this, first being that a book in which half the characters speak in mono-syllables is not exactly a positive.

The second reason is that laconic Laconians must be the exception if they wanted to run any form of society, and then there's the natural variation of personality.  Not all Italians gesticulate when they speak!

Surviving examples of laconic speech aren't everyday speech; they're all pithy statements designed to hammer home a point.    And that, I suspect, is the origin of the laconic Laconian: when they wanted to make a point clearly known, it was just a cultural thing that they did it with a short, powerful statement.

I very much doubt they were as dour as the laconic reputation suggests for this reason too:  that among the Greeks they were known as "crickets" as a nickname, because the Spartans were always ready for a song and a community dance.  That doesn't say laconic to me.

The weirdness that was Sparta

It would need a book, probably in three volumes, to even begin to do justice to Sparta. The place was like nowhere else we know of, before or since. Spartan life was so removed from our modern experience, that it would almost be reasonable to say that while Athens strove to become us, Sparta was determined to be the exact opposite. It's no wonder the Athenians and the Spartans could never trust each other.

I won't try and write a book; instead I'll point out a few of the weirder parts of Spartan life:

Sparta had two kings, running in two ancient lineages. Presumably this was a carryover from when the city formed from multiple tribes. It did mean that a new, inexperienced king could be balanced by one with more experience. It also meant a certain amount of argument!

Each newborn baby boy was taken by his father to a committee, which decided whether the child was fit to live. If not, then the baby was exposed to die, by order of the state committee. But if, much more usually, he was fit to live, then the baby was allocated on the spot a plot of farmland which was his for life: his source of income and support. The plot came with helots to work the land; all the owner had to do was eat the produce. When a man died, his farm was returned to the state for allocation to the next baby that came along. It's hard to know what to call this by modern standards. Fascism? Communism? Beats me.

There was only one profession for a Spartan: to be a soldier. The other two classes were the helots—who were slaves—and a small band of free non-citizens called the periocoi.

Helots were a once-free people who were made slaves by the Spartans. The helots rose up on a semi-regular basis. Which is why the Spartans were dedicated soldiers: not to fight wars but to keep the helots in line.

Helots were not slaves in the normal sense that they could be bought and sold at will. They were tied to the land. In some ways they were more like serfs than slaves.

There was a rite of passage for young Spartans called the krypteia, in which the young men were sent alone into the countryside, with only a dagger, and orders to survive without being caught. Oh, and each young man was to kill a few helots. For practice, you know. It was a way of getting the young men used to killing before they had to do it much more dangerously in combat, and it seems as if helot troublemakers were particularly targeted, thus killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.

When a man came of age he was allocated to a mess, which also formed his fighting unit. He stayed in that mess for life.

Spartan women, surprisingly, were the most free of any of the Greeks. The theory went you needed women in good condition to produce strong children.

There was a council of elders, called the gerousia. Membership by invitation only, and you had to be 60 years or older (gerousia...geriatric). Any Spartan who lived to 60, considering the battles, had to be one tough guy.

5 ephors were selected each year from amongst the Spartiates. The ephors held veto power. Whenever a king left Sparta, 2 ephors would accompany him. Any 2 ephors together ccould overrule a king. All 5 ephors could overrule both kings. Ephors were rather powerful.

The first action of the newly elected ephors each year was to declare war on their own helots. So it was legal to kill them without fear of blood guilt, you know.

It was illegal to have a funeral stone unless you died in battle.

For a Spartan to surrender was the greatest shame. In fact to fail to die in battle with your comrades was pretty bad too. There was a man sent off on an embassy by King Leonidas, right before the last stand at Thermopylae. When this man discovered that he'd failed to be slaughtered along with his friends, he was so ashamed he hung himself. A small force of Spartans surrendered to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. All of Greece was shocked.

Sparta was structured like four connected villages, each with its own agora. It probably means Sparta coalesced in prehistoric times from four tribes. Unlike every other important city in Greece, Sparta had no defensive walls. The Spartans took the view that anyone who thought they could beat them was welcome to come on in and try.

The Spartans were totally convinced this new-fangled money stuff would never catch on. Instead, they used small iron bars for the few times currency was needed in their lives. Even a couple of hundred years after coinage was invented, the Spartans were still resisting.

The Spartans did from time to time hold general votes. How they voted was this: some men were sent outside the assembly hall. The Aye voters and the Noe voters then shouted as loud as they could, one group after the other. Whichever side shouted loudest won the debate, as decided by the listeners outside.

They called themselves Lacedaemonians, from Lacedaemonia. Try saying that ten times fast. Which is why you typically see the letter lambda on their shields.

Spartans were sometimes referred to amongst other Greeks as "crickets", because they were always ready for a sing-song and communal dancing.

The Spartans were renowned as a people of few words. Our modern term laconic comes direct from Lacedaemon. So the next time you describe someone as laconic, you're accusing them of being like a Spartan.

I could go on forever, but I'll stop there. If people read of a place like this in an epic fantasy, they'd say it was over the top.

Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

Gorgo was the daughter of one Spartan King, wife to another, and mother to a third. But what she was really famous for was her deep wisdom, which she used to advise the kings of Sparta, beginning at the tender age of 8.

Her father was King Cleomenes. Cleomenes was once visited by a dodgy foreigner called Aristagoras, who proposed Sparta join in a very dubious project. After Cleomenes refused, this is what happened:
Aristagoras followed Cleomenes with an olive branch in his hand, like a suppliant, and besought Cleomenes to listen and send away his only child, Gorgo, a little girl of 8 or 9, who happened to be standing by her father's side. Cleomenes told Aristogoras to say what he wished and not to mind the child.

Aristagoras began with an offer of 10 talents, to be paid to Cleomenes if he consented. Cleomenes shook his head, and Aristagoras gradually increased his offer. When he went as high as 50 talents, the little girl exclaimed, "Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you." Cleomenes appreciated his daughter's warning.
The proposal the 8 year old Gorgo had just advised her father against was a Spartan invasion of Persia. High politics indeed, and Gorgo was listening in, and learning, from a very young age.

There seems to be a tradition by the way of Spartan Kings playing with their kids while conducting affairs of state. For remorseless killers they were pretty good family men.

Gorgo was the only child of Cleomenes. Because of this, when he died (in very odd circumstances, but I'll leave that for another post), Gorgo was in the extremely unusual position of being the female heir to a Spartan throne. She inherited because she was already married, to a chap called Leonidas. Leonidas became King.

Yes, that Leonidas, the one who would later lead the 300 at Thermopylae. Leonidas was in fact Gorgo's father's half-brother, making this obviously a dynastic marriage, yet by all accounts it was also a very happy one. Gorgo became a one-woman brains trust backing the Spartan leadership, and Leonidas became the second king in a row to take her advice.

There was living in Susa at the time Xerxes decided to attack Greece, an exiled Spartan called Demaratus. Demaratus wanted to send a warning to the Spartans, but knew any message sent by him would be read (no doubt by the Eyes and Ears of the King). So Demaratus scraped all the wax off a wax tablet (which is what people back then used to send letters) and scratched his warning into the backing board of the tablet. Then he reapplied the wax and sent an apparently blank tablet to Sparta.

The Spartans were totally confused when a blank tablet arrived from Persia, sent by a man they'd exiled. No one had any idea what it meant, until they took it to Queen Gorgo, who by this time had a thorough reputation for being the smartest person in Sparta.

Gorgo looked at it, deduced there was a message beneath the wax, and had it scraped off, and thus the Greeks had warning of the coming war and time to mobilise. The Spartans sent word to Athens, where Themistocles had spent the last 10 years preparing for this moment, and his plan went into action. (It's certain that Themistocles and Gorgo met and spoke after the war, and that must have been one fascinating conversation.)

Gorgo knew perfectly well, when Leonidas led the mission to Thermopylae, that her husband wouldn't be coming back. She famously asked him what she should do, and he replied, "Marry well and bear children, and live a good life."

It's not known if she followed the advice, but she'd already borne Leonidas a son, Pleistarchus, who assumed the kingship when he came of age. With Leonidas and Gorgo for parents it must have been a tough act to follow, but he did a reasonable job.

Gorgo totally bought into the Spartan ethic. She was once asked by an (obviously frustrated) woman from Attica why the Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men. Gorgo replied, "Because we are the only ones who give birth to real men."

Gorgo is one of the very few women mentioned by name in the Greek histories, and one of even fewer to have had direct influence in politics. The only woman to compare with her in the Classical age is Aspasia, who followed in the next generation.