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Bronze Age Sparta

When we think about ancient Sparta, an image of Frank Miller's 300 inevitably comes to mind.  So when we talk about the story of the Trojan War and the beautiful Helen coming from Sparta, it's easy to assume that she came from a society where the boys were taken from home and enrolled in military barracks at age seven, and where even the girls physically trained to prepare them for their state duty: producing as many strong, powerful Spartan babies as possible.

This question of Spartan culture became important when I was researching Helen's Daughter way back in 2010-11.  What sort of world did Helen and Hermione inhabit?  How did it relate to its neighbors in Pylos and Mycenae?

Let's start with the familiar idea of hardcore, badass Sparta.  The Sparta of King Leonidas and Thermopylae was Classical Sparta, the militaristic Greek state created by the quasi-mythic Lycurgus in the seventh-eighth centuries B.C.  The Sparta of the Trojan War was a Bronze Age kingdom from the thirteenth century B.C., four hundred years earlier.  Assuming that ancient writers like Plutarch were not exaggerating the extremes of Classical Spartan militarism, the two Spartas had nothing in common except that they occupied the same piece of real estate.


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The Menelaion, with the snowy peaks of Mount Taygetus in the distance.  In the Classical period, the Spartan elders of the Genousia allegedly threw defective babies into a chasm on Mount Taygetus.  This chasm has never been found, nor has any archaeological evidence of such extreme infanticide.

A French classicist, François Ollier, argued in his 1933 book The Spartan Mirage that "a major scholarly problem regarding Sparta is that all the surviving accounts of Sparta were written by non-Spartans who often presented an excessively idealized image of Sparta."  The consensus among historians today is that Sparta was not as hardcore as earlier thought.

So when we imagine Helen of Sparta, we should forget about the Sparta made infamous through Plutarch and later sources.  Helen's Sparta would have been part of the Mycenaean Koine.  Helen would have worn jewelry made by Cretan artists, wearing scented oils imported through, perhaps, the port of Tiryns or Pylos, worshipped before idols made, perhaps, in a workshop near Mycenae.  She would have feasted on red meat and wine, rather than the notorious melas zomas, the black blood broth of legend.

Thirteenth century B.C. Sparta belonged to what is known as the "Mycenaean Koine," or shared culture.  Mycenaean kings like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Nestor shared the same taste in architecture, decoration, and material objects.  Homer in The Odyssey describes Menelaus's palace as being decorated with silver and gold.  This was not merely hyperbole.  Surviving evidence reveals the garishness of the Mycenaean palaces.  These two Cretan-manufactured cups from a Spartan site named Vapheio, for example, speak to a culture that Leonidas and Lycurgus would have frowned upon:

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