This story, which I wrote for the last final I will ever have to take in high school (!), is based on the legend (which has not been proven true or false) about a single phiditia remaining in Sparta after the fall of Greece in 146 BC (when Greece was conquered by Rome). Some accounts say that this phiditia was actually present for the Roman defeat by the Visigoths in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. Rome wouldn’t actually fall for another hundred years (476), but Adrianople was the beginning of the end.
Italicized narration is from the perspective of the Spartan’s sister. Non-italicized narration is from the perspective of the Roman Emperor Valens.
He was still young, but he was old enough to be a man, as I was old enough to be a woman. We had been close, as children, but then he had turned seven and left. I did not understand why, at first, but I would later know that he was to be taught everything the state could teach him about being a man and a warrior. Then, of course, I turned seven two years later and I too left our mother’s house. Unlike my brother, whose home is now forever apart from mine, I returned to my parents’ house four months ago.
This has been the way of things for centuries: men leave when they are seven to become warriors; women learn from the state and then run their household.
They laughed at us. They called themselves patricians1; they came across the Ionian Sea from a place they called Roma and they slipped into Sparta like a disease and they watched the naked men compete in pankration2 in the training yards, watched the harsh thrusts of the xiphoi3 and the deadly elegance of the phalanx formation with the dory3 spears and the circular shields, watched the women compete in gymnastics, and they laughed. “The quaint Spartans,” they said. “Training for a war that they will never fight; keeping the tradition that is already dead.”
And I may have said that we were foolish, but that we had nothing else now. We had no power, no glory or honor, and our place in the world, once taken by the Persians and the Thebans and the Macedonians, was now taken by Roma.
And yet we were great once, when Ares smiled on us at Messene4 and when the Peloponnese was ours, when three hundred spartiatai5 died in the arms of the weeping Artemis after having ended 20,000 Immortals at Thermopylae6. Perhaps we can be great again. Perhaps we already are greater than the Romans, just as three hundred Spartan lives were worth more than 20,000 Persian lives, just as our honor and our code is stronger than the strange walls and roads and aqueducts of those who conquered Greece.
He was one of the greatest. Many waited years to join the phiditia7; he was accepted within a year of his eighteenth birthday. He had excelled at the pankration. He was harsh and he was ruthless in combat, but he was kind and honorable: in school, he had been the cleverest and the quickest at stealing bread, only caught once. I heard that he used to share the food with the other boys, but only those who would swear their loyalty to him. He was a natural leader among his peers and among the older men. When he was released from the school and given his wife, it is said that even the men in the apella8 used to ask his opinion, and he always would reply, “You ask me as though I were very wise, and yet the ephors9 alone live to uphold the laws.” He spoke rarely, but, when he did, it was with the humility of one who knows his place and the pride of one who knows to give his life with honor. He was clever, but he did not flaunt it. His teachers used to think him very stupid, but then, once, he was asked if he knew how to speak, and he replied solemnly, as was his way, “To know how to speak, you must also know when you have something worth saying.” He was so well respected that he was permitted to lead his lochos almost immediately, despite being so young.
The war in Rome broke out, and it was clearly to be seen that it would fall as we had fallen, cast into obscurity, their greatness mocked by the laughter of lesser men. And the patricians who once had laughed now begged of us to fight, and we were honorable, so we sent our last phiditia to aid the already-defeated empire in the Battle of Adrianople.
I have fought many years, now, and yet never have I seen such pride and such discipline as is exhibited by these warriors hailing from Sparta to aid us. They are few in number, and yet they are fierce enough to defeat even the greatest Roman hero. It is fortunate that there were not more of them five hundred years ago when Greece fell to Roma, for, if there had been, we never would have lived to see the Pax Augusta that has sustained until now, in the face of the barbarians.
There is one in particular. I have never seen a man like this—I do not know his name—and yet if we had a thousand of him, we could win. Knowing this, I also know that there has not been another like him since Imperātor Augustus or Germanicus. He has spoken to me but once, when I offered him food and he said with the quiet dignity of his race, “I shall eat Roman bread when I meet a Roman with the honor of Leonidas, the strength of Ares, and the cunning of Aeginaea10. I have seen these qualities only in my brothers, and so shall dine only with them.” I could have been insulted, and yet I saw in him the stronger pride, born of pain, of one who has fallen to one he feels is beneath him, and felt that I may soon share that pride.
I wonder about him, but his silence and his pride deter me from asking.
I realize that my description of him seems less than extraordinary. He was impudent once, and he is a Spartan.
And yet, the way he fights is unlike anything else I have seen. When first he arrived with his small force, they were but barely dressed, only a cape, a short tunic, leg greaves, and their helmet, armed with odd circular shields and unusually short swords. They were given standard Roman armor, weapons, and shields, and each of them, in disgust, cast aside what they were given and returned to their native weapons. They refused to join the Roman phalanxes, and drilled only their own method of fighting, which was strange but seemed effective.
And yet, this one young man, he kept what he was given and, instead of forsaking them, he laid them by his bed roll and, clutching his native things to him, watched us practice. He declined to join us, but he studied us with an intensity that was slightly disconcerting. When one of our own, a young aristocrat, arrogant in his youth, began mocking the Spartans, crying, “Can you not fight?” he was nearly attacked by one of the foreigners. The Spartan man put his hand on his comrade’s shoulder, and said “Peace,” first in his own tongue, then in the Latin that he was forced to learn as a child. The entire phiditia calmed immediately and turned away from the Romans, scoffing. The next day, when the Roman forces practiced, it was to the sound of the quiet murmurs of Greek, occasionally punctuated with laughter that I was sure was at our expense, and the soft songs they sang. When we had finished, the Spartans, at a single command from the one, grouped into formation, each in the same attire in which they had arrived (excepting the tunic), clutching two spears, a short sword shaped like a leaf, and a shield held in their left hand. They broke apart and, having cast aside their weapons, grappled for about an hour. I interrupted one pair of fighters and asked them what they were doing. The two men turned to each other, grinning, and one answered, “Pankration. I thought you knew everything about Greece.” Then they turned away as though I had never been there and continued what they were doing.
Tonight, he sits alone by a small fire, wearing only his tunic and sandals. It is with a great solemnity that he combs his long hair, quietly chanting prayers or poetry—I can’t tell which. My men and his are eating and talking; when their laughter becomes too loud, he only closes his eyes and continues chanting.
Tonight will be the last night many of us will see. There is a part of me that fears this man, but I would know him better before we depart to Heaven.
I leave the shadows in which I have been leaning, and I sit beside the Spartan. He stiffens at my presence, but otherwise acts as though I were not there. I wait. He keeps chanting in the lilt of the Greek tongue.
“You decline to eat Roman bread,” I say. “But I have not yet seen any Spartan bread.”
His eyes close and his chanting becomes barely louder.
“Here,” I say, setting down a plate of food at his feet. Then I rise and leave. I know where I am unwelcome.
When many have retired to bed and the fires are mostly out, he can still be seen beside his small blaze of light. He has finished with his hair now—it is neatly braided back from his face, and some braids make a woven pattern. He no longer chants, but merely sits staring into the fire. As though he can feel me watching him, he looks up and meets my eyes—his gaze is of an intensity I have seen only in the statues of the great men. Slowly, deliberately, he picks up the bread I left him so many hours ago and, still gazing at me, nods in what can only be a thanks.
Again, I go to sit beside him. He does not acknowledge my presence, at first, but then he offers me the bread he has been picking at. I decline silently.
“Do you think to return home, Spartan?”
I think he may smile, but cannot quite tell. For a moment, I think he will not answer. Then, “My home is long dead, Roman.”
“What do you mean?”
For the first time since I sat beside him, he looks at me. “My home is with my ancestors who defended the glory of my homeland and who slaughtered Immortals that we might remain in such glory. My life seeks only to revive what has been dead for centuries.” His gaze returns to the fire.
“Do you think to return to your native land, though?”
“I think nothing.”
There is silence.
“My wife shall soon give birth,” I say. “I cannot but hope that neither she nor the child shall live to hear of our fall.”
“You expect defeat?”
“There is no hope for victory.”
“Then hope for a delay—that is its own victory.”
“Have you a family?”
“Aye,” he says, and I think that he will say nothing more. Then he adds, “A wife, only, but she is now heavily with child.”
“No siblings or servants? No parents?”
“A sister. I have not seen her or my parents since I was a child.”
“The laws do not permit it.”
“You hope for a son?”
“Your hair. Does it signify anything?”
“Long hair is the mark of the free man. I am not a helot11 at home, and I shall not be a Roman slave, though I battle now for your homeland.”
“But the designs?”
“The weaving is to invoke Athena, and this—” he gestured to an odd curving design, like a crescent moon— “is that Aeginaea Artemis might smile on me.”
We both fall silent, and I do not think I will hear him speak again.
Then, suddenly, he adds, “In Sparta, it is said that a soldier who would live will fight better and more honorably than one who thinks to die.”
“And yet, if you do think to die, think to awaken in Elysium, where the gods reward the toils of the brave.”
“You worship the one God—I forgot. Those who have pleased the gods with their heroism and honor are sent to the golden fields of Elysium. Hesiod told of how ‘they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them.’12 If we fall tomorrow, we shall dine in Elysium, where we shall meet Achilles and Odysseus and Leonidas, and we will work in joy among the three hundred who fell gloriously in the face of Xerxes’s Immortals.”
I am attempting to formulate a response to this, when he abruptly stands and excuses himself, “Goodnight, Roman.”
He was a good man when he left, but he was a hero when he died. The Battle of Adrianople was lost by the Romans, and, although the empire remains, it will not be long now before the Germanic barbarians overrun them. The Roman Imperātor, a man called Valens, was killed; survivors say that the greatest army in the world fell in droves before the Germanic barbarians.
He led the Spartans through the battle, though, and, though they could not sway the battle in their own favor, they were able to persevere and survive and many men returned home, shield in hand. When they returned, I met them at the gates and there I saw my brother for the first time in many years. He stiffly smiled to his wife, who, with the other women, had joined me, and his tired eyes met mine. He kept marching, but his head craned around that he might keep looking at me. Then he nodded and again faced the front just as my own husband entered the gates.
There were many weeks of what we may call peace. The men trained and those under thirty, such as my husband and my brother, lived apart from their wives; the women trained and cleaned and went to market. All was quiet, and yet the men’s superstitions remained braided into their hair, and there was a tenseness in the songs we sang to calm ourselves.
We first heard their cry when Artemis’s moon hung high over us. We could hear the clashing of bronze armor hastily strapped on, of swords and shields swung into place, of the hurried prayers and hushed, tense songs. I slipped out of my bed and my mother and I stood side by side in the doorway, watching the hasty Spartan phalanx crash again and again into the Visigoths’ harsh disorder. The mixed battle cries were more terrifying and more deafening than the sound of the dories crashing against Visigoth chainmail. And yet, in the light of Aeginaea’s moon, there was even then an order among the terror. Again and again, the Spartan phalanx would retreat, then rush into the thick of things. To the side, one king called orders while the other led the phalanx. My brother was directly behind the king, and my husband only just behind him.
The Germanics were defeated, and yet so many died. My father, my brother, and my husband were felled, with both kings, before the battle had even begun to end.
Our lives have been those of preservationists, attempting to revive a dead Sparta. And yet this world has not belonged to us for centuries, and soon it shall never again belong to the too-decadent Romans. And so does the world move on, as one man conquers his better and then is conquered again.
Sparta fell, but now that it has fallen again, it did so with honor. Now it shall be revived in Elysium, smiled upon by Aeginaea and Ares.
And so we dissolve in this new world, honor to dust and worms to glory.
1 Patricians were the Roman aristocracy. Although this class evolved (or devolved) over time into the optimates, they likely still called themselves patricians. According to the legend, they used to travel to Sparta to watch the phiditia as a sort of entertainment.
2 Pankration was a Greek martial art that was used in Spartan military training. It was also an Olympic sport, but some accounts say that the Spartans were often banned from competition because they were so adept at it and because they didn’t recognize the few rules that were enforced (no eye-gouging and no biting).
3 Dory spears were long spears often used by Spartans in phalanx formation.
4 The First and Second Messenian Wars, c.735 – c.715 BC and c.685 – c.668 BC, respectively
5 Spartiatai were the Spartan aristocracy. Despite having all of the political power, they were trained from an early age to rule in the interest of the state, rather than for their own gain.
6 At the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, the 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, blocked the Persian advance for three days, ending in 298 Spartan deaths and an estimated 20,000 Persian casualties. Xerxes of Persia referred to his army as “The Immortals.”
7 A phiditia would have been roughly equivalent to a platoon. Male spartiatai were expected to join a phiditia by the age of 30 or else have their rights drastically restricted.
8 The apella was the general assembly of male spartiatai who had been accepted by a phiditia and were aged 30 – 60.
9 The ephors were tasked with upholding the unwritten constitution. To do this, they were granted the power of life and death over every citizen, except the two kings, whom they were able to arrest in certain circumstances.
10 Aeginaea was a Spartan name for the goddess of the hunt, Artemis.
11 Helots were Spartan state-owned slaves, captured in war.
12 From Hesiod’s Works and Days, as found on Wikipedia