The Spartan “democratic” experiment

V century B.C. Athens is irrefutably celebrated for being the holy source of Western Culture, the humus into which philosophy and tragedy developed and above all for indisputably representing the very cradle of democracy. Quite as much as Sparta – her most fierce and inextinguishable enemy – is renowned for her warfare excellence, her strictly regimented standard of living and some of her fairly inexplicable inhuman rituals. Nevertheless, analysing VI and V century B.C. Spartan political institutions, it would not be totally inappropriate to admit that even the Lacedaemonians attempted – and to some extent achieved – their own democratic experiment.

Spartan society was divided mainly into three classes, the Omoioi - ὅμοιοι (literally the equals): full right male citizens equally assignees of collectively owned lots of land, the Perioeci – περίοκοί: free inhabitants of Sparta’s outskirts and Laconia coastlines and the Ελωτες – Helots: nearly state’s slaves-land-workers assigned to the Omoioi – these both with no political rights and compelled to military duties. Politically the Spartans had their assembly (Apella) gathering solely the Omoioi; then a consultative-board composed by 28 Elders Γερουσία (Gerousia) whose members were 60 years or older and belonged to the noble class and 2 hereditary Kings: principally endowed with military powers and full control of the army; finally 5 magistrates yearly elected (Ephores) were in charge of the auditing of the laws and the preservation of the integrity of the institutions – they were a true executive body. This framework of Spartan Constitution was attributed to the patient work of a semi-mythological legislator Lycurgus, who produced them in a sort of unmemorable old epoch, wrapped within a mythical aura as the verses of Tyrtaeus portray:

These oracles they from Apollo heard, and brought from Pytho home the perfect word

So – as Plutarch writes – Lycurgus brought from Delphi the oracle’s Rethra:

So eagerly set was he upon this establishment, that he took the trouble to obtain an oracle about it from Delphi, the Rhetra, which runs thus: “After that you have built a temple to Zeus Hellanius, and to Atena Hellania, and after that you have organised the people in phyles, and ordered them into obes, you shall establish a council of thirty elders, the including the archagetai, and shall, from time to time, apellazein the people betwixt Babyca and Cnacion, there propound and put to the vote. The comunity have the final voice and decision. “By phyles and obes are meant the divisions of the people; by the archagetai, the two kings; apellazein, referring to the Pythian Apollo, signifies to assemble; Babyca and Cnacion they now call Oenus; Aristotle says Cnacion is a river, and Babyca a bridge. Betwixt this Babyca and Cnacion, their assemblies were held, for they had no council-house or building, to meet in. Lycurgus deemed that ornaments were so far from advantaging them in their counsels, that they were rather an hindrance, by diverting their attention from the business before them to statues and pictures, and roofs curiously fretted, the usual embellishments of such places amongst the other Greeks. The people then being thus assembled in the open air, it was not allowed to any one of their order to give his advice, but only either to ratify or reject what should be propounded to them by the king or Gerousia. But because it fell out afterwards that the people, by adding or omitting words, distorted and perverted the sense of propositions, kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted into the Rhetra the following clause: “That if the people talk and decide deceivingly, it should be lawful for the elders and archagetai to dissolve the assembly and dismiss the people as they divert the motions and bias the works and resolutions of the assembly”.

Thus the Apella, (assembly) gathered once a month and admitted every Spartan over 30 years old and held the power to decide and approve whatever motion the kings (archagetai) and the Gerousia might bring to its attention. Similarities with early pre-Pericles Athenian social structure and political-institutional organisation are evident – perhaps more formal than substantial, though: on most matters in the agenda, the Apella had no actual decisional power as the omoioi could approve or express disapproval, but could not speak in the assembly. That right being reserved to the Ephors, Kings and members of Gerousia, left the other citizens with limited opportunity to suggest new ideas. Although even the members to the Athenian assembly (Ecclesia) were rarely truly numerous, and the people who actually took the stand proposing new motions – something which in theory any participant was entitled to – were always the same few well trained demagogues and/or unofficial spokesman of a specific party…

Nonetheless comparisons were made and sameness already in those days was often pointed out, in so much as Isocrates strove to somehow defended the derivation and originality of Athenian democracy:

“ἐγ δμολογ μν ρεν πολλ τν κε καθεσττων, οχ ς Λυκοργου τι τοτων ερντος διανοηθντος, λλς μιμησαμνου τν διοκησιν ς δυνατν ριστα τν τν προγνων τν μετρων, κα τν τε δημοκραταν καταστσαντος παρατος τν ριστοκρατίᾳ μεμιγμνην, περ ν παρμν, κα τς ρχς ο κληρωτς λλαρετς ποισαντος, κα τν γερντων αρεσιν τν πιστατοντων πασι τος πργμασι μετ τοσατης σπουδς ποιεσθαι νομοθετσαντος, μεθσης πρ φασι κα τος μετρους περ τν ες ρειον πγον ναβσεσθαι μελλντων, τι δ κα τν δναμιν ατος περιθντος τν ατν, νπερ δει κα τν βουλν χουσαν τν παρμν.

τι μν ον τν ατν τρπον τκε καθστηκεν σπερ εχε τ παλαιν κα τ παρμν, παρ πολλν σται πυθσθαι τος εδναι βουλομνοις: ς δ κα τν μπειραν τν περ τν πλεμον ο πρτερον σκησαν οδμεινον χρσαντο Σπαρτιται τν μετρων, κ τν γνων κα τν πολμων τν μολογουμνων γενσθαι κατκενοι τν χρνον οτως ομαι σαφς πιδεξειν, στε μτε τος νοτως λακωνζοντας ντειπεν δυνσεσθαι τος ηθεσι, μτε τος τ μτερα μα τε θαυμζοντας κα βασκανοντας κα μιμεσθαι γλιχομνους.”

[I acknowledge that I am going to speak at length of the institutions of Sparta, not taking the view, however, that Lycurgus invented or conceived any of them, but that he imitated as well as he could the government of our ancestors, establishing among the Spartans a democracy tempered with aristocracy – even such as existed in Athens -, enacting that the offices be filled, not by lot, but by election, ordaining that the election of the Elders, who were to supervise all public affairs, should be conducted with the very same care as, they say, our ancestors also exercised with regard to those who were to have seats in the Aeropagus, and, furthermore, conferring upon the Elders the very same power which he knew that the Council of the Aeropagus also had in Athens.

Now that the institutions of Sparta were established after the manner of our own as they were in ancient times may be learned from many sources by those who desire to know the truth. But that skill in warfare is something which the Spartans did not practise earlier than our ancestors or employ to better advantage than they I think I can show so clearly from the struggles and the wars which are acknowledged to have taken place in those days that none will be able to contradict what I say – neither those who are blind worshippers of Sparta nor those who at once admire and envy and strive to imitate the ways of Athens.]

Paradoxically the remarkable resemblance of the Spartan Constitution is corroborated by Isocrates argumentations; he, particularly nostalgic in his late years and struggling against the growing praising pro-Spartan atmosphere, even maintained that Lycurgus did actually copycat the Athenian political and institutional framework from Theseus an ancient hero-mythological king of Athens…

In spite of Isocrates, many – in different ways and degrees of appreciation and on diverse grounds and pursuing various aims – have been the admirers of the Lacedaemonian social and political structure including even Plato and Xenophon. An interesting, detached and rather technical analysis of the Spartan political institutions was carried out a few centuries later by Polybius who considered it “the best of all existing constitutions”:

“Lycurgus had perfectly well understood that all the above changes take place necessarily and naturally, and had taken into consideration that every variety of constitution which is simple and formed on principle is precarious, as it is soon perverted into the corrupt form which is proper to it and naturally follows on it. For just as rust in the case of iron and wood-worms and ship-worms in the case of timber are inbred pests, and these substances, even though they escape all external injury, fall a prey to the evils engendered in them, so each constitution has a vice engendered in it and inseparable from it. In kingship it is despotism, in aristocracy oligarchy, and in democracy the savage rule of violence; and it is impossible, as I said above, that each of these should not in course of time change into this vicious form. Lycurgus, then, foreseeing this, did not make his constitution simple and uniform, but united in it all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil, but that, the force of each being neutralized by that of the others, neither of them should prevail and outbalance another, but that the constitution should remain for long in a state of equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat, kingship being guarded from arrogance by the fear of the commons, who were given a sufficient share in the government, and the commons on the other hand not venturing to treat the kings with contempt from fear of the elders, who being selected from the best citizens would be sure all of them to be always on the side of justice; so that that part of the state which was weakest owing to its subservience to traditional custom, acquired power and weight by the support and influence of the elders. The consequence was that by drawing up his constitution thus he preserved liberty at Sparta for a longer period than is recorded elsewhere.”

Polybius could distinguish within the Lacedaemonians Constitution an unparalleled long-lasting political solution, a cleverly conceived organised mix of monarchical ancestral foundations, aristocratic guidance and popular support under the shelter of a well trained army. He admired this lifelong melange of democracy and oligarchy, gained by the Spartans with patience/experience and enforced with the authoritative support of religion, something lacking – as he instead strongly lamented – within the process Rome had been going through in achieving a steady political order.

Undoubtedly it may be objected that part of the bright Spartan democracy/oligarchy success was based on her strongly reduced population (circa 9,000 Omoioi – always decreasing), and a great mass of no-right workers/slaves; and above all on a very primitively socialist – and consequently less complicated – economical system. Nevertheless this attention-grabbing “example” still stands, especially when conceiving democracy not simply as an ideology, but as Hans Kelsen suggests, as an ensemble of procedures in order to defend and promote the development of a society and its members, thus he accordingly maintains:

“Neither capitalism or socialism imply a prefigured political procedure, therefore, in principle, both of them may be compatible with whether democracy or autocracy”.

Moreover the incredible duration of the said Constitution and its relatively remarkable steadiness throughout the stormy centuries previous the spreading of the Roman empire and the collapse/absorption of the Greek world, keep playing a leading role in praising high still now the Spartan peculiarly democratic experiment.

Sallust: a disenchanted moralist

“Since when wealth became to be considered an honour, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at nought modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint”.

This sad portrait of times that are changing most certainly sounds like one of those brief – and perhaps somewhat trite – social backgrounds that normally accompany a comment-article on today’s degeneration of costumes and youth’s lack of moral values; it could resemble a sad and sour comment found in the papers beside one of the last tragic young-people-related breaking news or a new – and alas! nowadays not anymore a “scoop” … – political scandal… Ultimately words and remarks like these could have been easily extracted from the New York Times or The Guardian. Yet, they have been written exactly 2000 years ago by Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) a – to some extent – controversial ancient Roman politician and excellent historian, acute observer and brilliant interpreter of his own times:

“Postquam divitiae honori esse coepere et eas gloria imperium potentia sequebatur, hebescere virtus, paupertas probro haberi, innocentia pro malevolentia duci coepit. Igitur ex divitiis iuventutem luxuria atque avaritia cum superbia inuasere: repere consumere, sua parvi pendere, aliena cupere, pudorem pudicitiam, divina atque humana promiscua, nihil pensi neque moderati habere. Operae pretium est, cum domos atque villas cognoueris in urbium modum exaedificatas, visere templa deorum, quae nostri maiores, religiosissimi mortales, fecere”.

Rich, but not noble by birth, Sallust owed his early political success to Julius Caesar whose protective wing was hovering on him; although later on the verge of his denounce of the famous conspiracy against the Republic conceived by Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), depicted by Sallust in his De Catilinae Coniuratione as a merciless and unscrupulous political criminal, he might have willingly forgotten that Julius Caesar could have been behind the early steps of the attempted coup and would have gained several advantages from its success… however, apparently when Catiline started recruiting rioters from the lower classes (seemingly even slaves) Julius Caesar and Crassus took their distance from the revolutionary plans and consul Cicero eventually discovered and diverted the putsch.

Perhaps due to his radical approach to politics, or simply because of the complex and quite confused and anarchical scenario of those days, Sallust himself was – it seems on false grounds – impeached and expelled from the Senate probri causa; but shortly after he was reinstated by Julius Caesar and appointed pro-consul of Numidia (the present Algeria). There he accumulated an enormous wealth that allowed him, once he retired after Caesar’s death, to devote himself to otium and writings in a magnificent mansion celebrated for its gardens: horti sallustiani.

De Catilinae Coniuratione was Sallust’s first published writing and it may be considered the first historical-theme monograph of Latin literature. Its structure and development follows the Hellenistic paradigm consisting of an introduction, description of the central character, a description of the social/political/ethical environment and then facts, documents and speeches. Within this framework Sallust was able to dart against the overly spreading dishonesty, the decadence of aristocracy, the lack of social commitment and the corruption of youth:

“Fortune then began to exercise her tyranny, and to introduce universal innovation. To those who had easily endured toils, dangers, and doubtful and difficult circumstances, ease and wealth, the objects of desire to others, became a burden and a trouble. At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil. For avarice subverted honesty, integrity, and other honourable principles, and, in their stead, inculcated pride, inhumanity, contempt of religion, and general venality. Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart. These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterward, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable”.

Once again this above would easily be considered the outburst of indignation of a disappointed old citizen remembering the good old days, or the dismay of a voter against the scandalous turns of society and unreliability of politicians and politics. Yet, this is still Sallust who again rushes violently, against greed, shallowness and hyper-ambition; and his utmost motive of preoccupation and rage is the conduct of the younger generations:

“…saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit. Qui labores, pericula, dubias atque asperas res facile toleraverant, iis otium divitiaeque, optanda alias, oneri miseriaeque fuere. Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit: ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. Namque avaritia fidem probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subuertit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore, aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re, sed ex commodo aestimare, magisque vultum quam ingenium bonum habere. Haec primo paulatim crescere, interdum vindicari; post ubi contagio quasi pestilentia inuasit, civitas immutata, imperium ex iustissimo atque optimo crudele intolerandumque factum.

In truth in so far as younger generations are concerned not even Pericles’ Athens was a true Garden of Eden. The heroes of Marathon, only a few decades earlier, struggling for survival and for the protection of the city walls from the Persian invaders had been a fantastic inspiration for civil unity, political growth and social and cultural progress. Thus collectively allowed by several marvellous – by many judged historically unrepeatable – circumstances, and economically funded by the treasure of the Delian League a widely diffused high level of prosperity and a remarkable sense of safety and wellness had spread almost all over the population (meaning of course principally the urban Attic inhabitants of male gender and free from slavery…). Nonetheless the new generations were now born with a sort of natural swanky self-confidence, without any particular inclination towards sacrifice or room for any social conscience or a true civil involvement. As Professor Schachermeyer pointed out in analysing Pericles’ Golden Age:

“The new generation, lacking the push of danger or necessity, became lazy and indolent. Even within the families the so called trigenerational scheme reveals its typical succession: while the first generation starts an enterprise with hard work and the second one enlarges its size, the third one puts everything it has inherited in jeopardy because of its carelessness and arrogance.

…in those days it was frequent too see too loving and permissive, and thus weak, fathers and too insolent ungrateful children…

Therefore even in the Athens of the Pentecontaetia the richness and welfare so hardly gained, accompanied by the disappearance of moderation and rigorousness soon left room to a decaying society and its dissolving moral and values. Thus in that unparalleled half century where flourished arts and culture which have influenced the entire Western civilisation, many youths lost any inhibition and ethics facing their existence without any vacillation: aspiring to a life only of pleasures within a luxurious environment, where everything was allowed and any ill-action arguable and defendable by simply being socially highly recognised, boldly witty, politically well connected and above all rhetorically endowed – conducts and vices that the greatest play-writer Aristophanes portrays in such numerous and brilliant personages and dialogues:

CHORUS LEADER: Now down to work, you spinner of words,
you explorer of brand new expressions.
Seek some way to persuade us, so it will appear
that what you’ve been saying is right.

PHEIDIPPIDES: How sweet it is to be conversant with
things which are new and clever, capable
of treating with contempt established ways.
When I was only focused on my horses,
I couldn’t say three words without going wrong.
But now this man has made me stop all that,
I’m well acquainted with the subtlest views,
and arguments and frames of mind. And so,
I do believe I’ll show how just it is
to punish one’s own father.

These young people, mainly belonging to the Athenian fast growing mercantile class were enthusiastic only with luxury and extravagance; dreamed of a life of pure and sole enjoyment and were interested in any petty thing only for a very short while and then got easily bored. How many ancient Greek plays describe parsimonious bourgeois fathers struggling against dissipating children who wasted all their finances with comrades, parasites, courtesans and consequently assiduously eroding the family wealth. Crucial was the circumstance that the youth did not want anything to do with moral, did not see in the polis anything but an institution to be exploited in order to satisfy their own interests and get rich and famous quickly… actually so far nothing unheard or unfamiliar to a young man like myself and not at all an antiquate behavioural analysis of modern life’s goals and ambitions…

It is remarkably curious how these perceptions and complaints keep coinciding as we move along the centuries as well as we switch latitude/longitude. Huysmans describing French society of late nineteenth century vividly laments the absolute superficiality and impoliteness of French youths:

Bien que les penchants utilitaires transmis par l’hérédité et développés par les précoces impolitesses et les constantes brutalités des collèges, eussent rendu la jeunesse contemporaine singulièrement mal élevée et aussi singulièrement positive et froide, elle n’en avait pas moins gardé, au fond du coeur, une vieille fleur bleue, un vieil idéal d’une affection rance et vague.

The writer also plunges at the decadence of nobility and the greed and vulgarity of the fast growing bourgeoisie:

Après l’aristocratie de la naissance, c’était maintenant l’aristocratie de l’argent; c’était le califat des comptoirs, le despotisme de la rue du Sentier, la tyrannie du commerce aux idées vénales et étroites, aux instincts vaniteux et fourbes.

Plus scélérate, plus vile que la noblesse dépouillée et que le clergé déchu, la bourgeoisie leur empruntait leur ostentation frivole, leur jactance caduque, qu’elle dégradait par son manque de savoir-vivre, leur volait leurs défauts qu’elle convertissait en d’hypocrites vices; et, autoritaire et sournoise, basse et couarde, elle mitraillait sans pitié son éternelle et nécessaire dupe, la populace, qu’elle avait elle-même démuselée et apostée pour sauter à la gorge des vieilles castes!

…classe bourgeoise qui avait peu à peu monté, profitant de tous les désastres pour s’enrichir, suscitant toutes les catastrophes pour imposer le respect de ses attentats et de ses vols?

It is striking how Huysmans conclusion on the raising magnitude given simply and solely to money, luxury and power by an increasing number of one-dimensional people:

…rassurée, trônait, jovial, de par la force de son argent et la contagion de sa sottise…. Le résultat de son avènement avait été l’écrasement de toute intelligence, la négation de toute probité…

does not differ, in spite of the 1900 years of distance in between, from the lapidary but sadly modern thought of Sallust – taken from his other masterpiece De Bellum Iugurthinum:

Romae omnia venalia esse

something that even – and perhaps more than ever – nowadays sounds quite hopeless being Roma caput mundi… and considering that apparently humans do not seem to learn any lesson from history…

The world according to Petronius Arbiter…

Gaius Petronius Arbiter (or Titus Petronius Niger), highly refined character of Nero’s age and entourage, brilliant and genial narrator, intelligent and unagitated witness of the mounting decadence of his society and a witty spectator watching from his privileged stand the disintegration of its ideals and values, is the  author of the renowned Satyricon – and, according to Fabius Planciades Fiulgentius, of two other almost totally lost writings: Albutia and Eustion.

Petronius is a remarkable observer, marvellous portrayer and a insightful analyst of human nature and life’s circumstances. In those brief and scattered chapters of his masterpiece he glides, with the utmost non-involvement through Roman everyday life, describing any sort of characters and events. Reading the Satyricon is an inexplicable intellectual journey not simply through the outskirts of ancient Naples and the Vesuvian area, but through life’s occurrences and human nature that are both timeless.

Petronius simply delivers to his readers episodes at times even grotesque, erotic, vulgar, bizarre and monstrous and thus portrays, and in his own way reveals, the misfortunes and the spirit, in one word the actual life of the majority of Imperial Rome’s population. The characters of his tale are corrupted and corrupting pedagogues, old pirates, opulent slaves, bogus intellectuals, pitiless adventurers, desperados, prostitutes. Quite an odd gallery, unquestionably… and yet the author is able to find incidents and events that will show us also a human side in almost each of them.

Like in an unorganised cheap journey the reader will see immense and richly furnished mansions, marvellously decorated gardens but meet as well muddy narrow lanes, filthy inn-keepers, third class whorehouses, smutty pick-pockets, obscene bedroom protagonists, fat drunkards, shrewd cutpurses and swindlers of any kind. People whose petty lives and miserable stories flourish from their own crude words, mischievous behaviours and continuous fights. Additionally the Satyricon contains several erotic episodes and plots, nevertheless his author keeps far from being openly vulgar: the reader may hardly find plainly rude expressions and loud naughty talking. Quite often Petronius uses witty expressions and interesting periphrasis, sometimes even neologisms – this could be in my opinion another and additional reason due to which as Tacitus refers he gained being elegantie arbiter during Nero’s Empire.

Petronius literary style is a racy one; its development and tones strongly remind me of Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”, though obviously less prolix… His verve and structure are very simple in accordance with the “Attic” parameters and quite far from any “Asian” stylish influence. His writing is zesty and vigorous, highly coloured and contaminated: it gathers from any possible dialect existing in the multiethnic “Rome” of his days, rich in idiomatic expressions and profusely drawing from the lingo, slang and street-jargon. Subsequently each character speaks his own Latin (with Greek, Syrian, Gallic influences) quite as well as he/she speaks his own mind and thus shows himself to the reader – plainly and shamelessly – just as he/she is.

Ultimately the Satyricon is a novel that speaks the truth, maybe via crude personages and odd situations, but it leaves room – or maybe hope – to what good is always possible patiently to find; a cross-section of Roman life without any reticence or fear, without any intention to criticise, censure or sermonise. A novel in truth without a real end or even a true plot; without any lesson to teach or a moral to metabolise, no cathartic experience is inducted, no preaching effect is expected. The author follows discreetly the petty stories, love affairs, swindles and wretched lives of his multifaceted personages, impeccably portrays the flaws and the vices of a collapsing empire and society.

Yet, during the depiction of these sorts of ancient Gogol’s “dead souls, runaways or rejected members of the society, shallow people without decent goals or plans Petronius remains an imperturbable reporter. In spite of his aristocratic origin and perspective Petronius, though being a nostalgic – perhaps not really that convinced – of the good old days when the Roman spirit had not been contaminated as yet by the wave of decadence that was flowing under his senses, is not the least judgemental. His narration is quite indulgent, he describes without deploring the ignominy of his personages, never deprecates their trivial goals and vulgar behaviour nor condemns their dishonourable actions. His portraying tone resembles more a gloomy and melancholic meditative one; and his infrequent commenting descriptions sound to me more of a sad loving fatherly smile and for some reason makes me think of Terence’s (Publius Terentius Afer):

Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto