The setting of my work in progress is ancient Sparta, whose people left an indelible mark on Western history. Even their Greek contemporaries thought the Spartans singular in their ways, and thousands of years later, we’re still naming school mascots after them.
For most Americans, the word “Spartan” conjures up images of King Leonidas and his 300 warriors fighting to the bitter death. While this is an iconic moment for Sparta, what makes this ancient city-state unique goes beyond that one battle, which is why learning about it is so fun.
So far in Part 1 and Part 2 of this miniseries, we’ve covered the Spartan dyarchy, its legendary origin, and how even though the two king thing sounded nice theoretically it never quite worked out well practically. So what were the kings supposed to be collaborating on anyway? In other words:
What was the kings’ job description?
On this topic, Herodotus writes:
These privileges the Spartans have given to their kings: two priesthoods, of Zeus called Lacedaemon and of Zeus of Heaven; they wage war against whatever land they wish, and no Spartan can hinder them in this on peril of being put under a curse; when the armies go forth the kings go out first and return last; one hundred chosen men guard them in their campaigns; they sacrifice as many sheep and goats as they wish at the start of their expeditions, and take the hides and backs of all sacrificed beasts.
Such are their rights in war…
Considering Sparta was essentially a warrior state, the waging war and going out first and returning last parts make total sense, but for those accustomed to government which holds itself separate from religion, the priestly part might seem a little strange. For the Greeks, though, religion was an integral part of warfare. In their world, everything, military conflict included, was subject to divine meddling, and Spartans weren’t the sort to make a move unless they felt they had a “go” from the gods. In fact, they sometimes halted border campaigns simply because the signs were against it.
One of the common ways of discerning the will of the gods was to sacrifice an animal and then “read” its entrails. Kind of a messy messaging system, but that was what they used. And considering the kings were essentially the generals of their military state, they were very much involved in the sacrificing and divining process. In addition to performing military sacrifices, the kings also consulted with the Oracle at Delphi and kept the official archives of past Delphic oracles that they could use as needed. And once everything fell in line for military action, the Spartan troops would assemble in sight of the enemy, and the king in charge would sacrifice a she-goat.
Another reason for the royal priesthood was that the kings themselves were considered sacred persons. In fact, other Spartans were not allowed to touch the king in public. Part of this goes back to the fact that the royals claimed descent from the mythic hero Heracles, better known by his Roman name Hercules. Heracles himself was a son of Zeus, meaning that the Spartan kings had a touch of the divine running in their veins. And who better to interface with the immortals than the great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandsons of the king of the gods?
Given this illustrious background, the kings, despite Sparta’s reputation for austerity, had a number of perks that went with their title, and I’ll go into those next time.