- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The image of Sparta as a dour, barracks-like camp hardly prepares the first-time visitor for the glorious spectacle that unfolds as one emerges from the uplands abutting Arcadia to the north and enters down the Eurotas valley into the Spartan plain. Stretching before one are two parallel mountain chains, that of Taygetus on the west reaching to 2,404 metres at the peak, and that of Parnon on the east (1,935 metres at its peak). The alluvial plain itself, and its continuation south in the Eurotas valley that runs out into the sea in the Laconian Gulf, constitute one of the most fertile and desirable pieces of land in all southern Greece. Soil, climate and man conspire to yield and garner sometimes two harvests of grain in a single year. Olives and grapevines, the other two staples of the so-called Mediterranean diet, flourish here too - as of course does the forest of citrus trees, but they are a post-Classical import, reminding us that the terrain and vegetation we see today are not necessarily those enjoyed by the inhabitants of two and a half millennia ago.
Hardly surprisingly, this region, known in historical times as Lacedaemon, was believed also to have been the seat of a great king in the ancient Greeks' heroic age - what we scholars more prosaically call the Mycenaean or Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1100 BC). An attempt has been made very recently (see biography of Helen p. 48) to relocate the palace of Homer's Menelaus from Sparta to Pellana further north in Laconia, but that flies in the face not only of ancient legend and religious worship but also of topographical geopolitics. Any real Late Bronze Age Menelaus must have had his palace in or near the site of historical Sparta - perhaps actually where a large settlement, including a building qualifying as a 'mansion', has been scrupulously excavated by the British School at Athens. However, no contemporary palace on the scale of those excavated at Mycenae (seat of Homer's Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus) and Pylos (capital of garrulous old Nestor) has yet come to light in Laconia - and perhaps never will. It is important not to read Homer as a straight history textbook, however archaeologically productive that mistake has undoubtedly been.
Helen of Troy - or Helen of Sparta? She was, of course, both. A local girl, daughter of Tyndareus, according to one version of her myth, but yet, according to another version, daughter of great father Zeus and born miraculously from an egg because her mother Leda had been visited by Zeus in the disguise of a swan. Her unsurpassed beauty made her a natural prize for the ambitious Menelaus, son of Atreus of Mycenae, whose older son Agamemnon took Helen's sister Clytemnestra for his bride. However, that beauty also captivated an unwelcome visitor to Sparta: Paris, prince of Troy in Asia, overlooking the straits of the Dardanelles, who - aided crucially by the Cyprus-born love goddess Aphrodite - violated the sacred obligations of guest-friendship and robbed Menelaus of his lawfully wedded wife.
Recently, a Greek archaeologist caused a little stir by claiming that he had located Helen's (and Menelaus') palace, not at Sparta but at Pellana some fifteen kilometres farther north. That claim would have astonished the ancient Spartans, who built a new shrine for Helen in Sparta, or more precisely at Therapne to the south-east of the ancient town, where she received worship along with her husband Menelaus and her divine brothers the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux in Latin). This was in the later eighth century, a time when the Spartans were, so to speak, rediscovering their roots, seeking to legitimize their recently won domain in south-east Peloponnese by presenting it as the legitimate successor of the kingdom of Menelaus as set out in Homer's Iliad. In actual fact, the cult of Helen at Therapne probably reflects a conflation of two Helens: one a goddess of vegetation and fertility associated with trees (also worshipped as such on Rhodes), the other the heroic Helen of Homeric legend. We shall stick with the latter.
More specifically, since Helen served later as an icon of Spartan womanhood and beauty, we must ask, was Helen raped (according to our usage of that term) by Paris or did she go with him consensually, of her own accord? Herodotus, father of history (in the phrase of Cicero), has three very interesting passages regarding Helen. The first comes in his opening aetiology of the Graeco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century, where he traces the history or mythography of Greek-Oriental enmity back through the mists of time and legend. A series of claims and counter-claims is wittily rehearsed, with Herodotus purporting merely to relate the stories he has been told by learned Phoenicians and Persians. Among them features, inevitably, the theft, if that is what it was, by Paris of Helen. Herodotus himself adopts a robust, not to say male chauvinist, view of the matter:
it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be.
However, an unambiguous tale, not related by Herodotus, of an earlier rape of Helen, effected by Theseus of Athens when she was but a girl rather than an adult wife, tells a different story. Lately, both Elizabeth Cook in her imaginative retelling of Achilles' story and John Barton in his no less powerful Tantalus play-cycle have reminded us opportunely of this earlier, darker chapter in Helen's eventful life.
The next reference to Helen in Herodotus is, if anything, even more disturbing, from the historical point of view. For according to him, as he relates it in his account of matters Egyptian in the
Excerpted from The SPARTANS by Paul Cartledge Copyright © 2003 by Paul Cartledge
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Preface and Acknowledgements||9|
|Pt. I||'Go, Tell the Spartans!'|
|1||Under the Sign of Lycurgus||47|
|2||Sparta in 500 BC||77|
|3||The Persian Wars, 490-479 BC||111|
|Pt. II||The Spartan Myth|
|4||The '50-year Period', 478-432 BC||143|
|5||Women and Religion||165|
|6||The Athenian War, 432-404 BC||181|
|Pt. III||A Crippled Kingship|
|7||The Spartan Empire, 404-371 BC||209|
|8||Fall and Decline, 371-331 BC||227|
|9||Revival and Reinvention 331 BC-AD 14||238|
|10||The Legacy: Leonidas Lives!||257|
|App||Hunting - Spartan-style||273|