In a famous incident recounted by Herodotus (Histories, VII, 208–9), Spartan soldiers, on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 bc, were observed by a Persian spy, ‘stripped for exercise and dressing and combing their hair’: both the spy and his master found the behaviour astonishing. It was later ex plained to Xerxes by Demaratus—himself a Spartan aristocrat—that ‘the Spartans pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives.’ We, too, share Xerxes’s bewilderment: we would not have expected soldiers to have been seen setting their hair before departing for the Battle of Britain (some thing that suggests that attitudes to warfare have changed out of all recognition between the ancient and modern worlds). The observation is yet more significant because, of all the soldiers of history, the Spartans have the reputation of being the most seriously martial of all.
In a way that recalls aspects of Japanese culture, war fare in the Spartan mind was a sacred art in which the cult and perfection of the male body—its symmetry, its endurance and its performance—were part of a divine calling. This ‘cult’ meant more than doing physical jerks and running assault courses: it meant ritualising martial actions and physical discipline, and exalting organised movement in a group, which led to a vital subordination of the individual will to the larger unit. It also meant more than seeing the body as a machine—an accusation often made in ignorance against Spartan culture—it meant exalting the strength and endurance of a well-trained body as a divine gift, as an emulation of the most beautiful of gods, Apollo. The Greeks never sacrificed an animal that was not perfect and properly prepared: the Spartans at Thermopylae were not blind to the probability of their imminent self-sacrifice, and accordingly they prepared themselves to be fit for such a divine calling, by attending carefully to their hair on the eve of the battle.
Thera was a Spartan colony, and at the main feast in honour of its presiding divinity, Apollo Karneios, in the month of August, it organised sacred spectacles which, like those in Sparta itself, lasted several days. These were known as the Gymnopaidi­ai, which as their name implies (γυμνός, ‘naked’ or ‘unarmed’; παίζω, ‘I play or disport’) were performed, probably naked, by boys who were passing from childhood into adulthood. They performed what appear to have been dances and martial sequences combining both musical grace and martial skill with the impressive endurance demanded by performing, as Plato points out (Laws, I, p. 633 b&c), under the heat of the August sun. only males performed and only men watched. This was part of a cultural phenomenon in Sparta, in which it was expected, even insisted on, by tradition that a young man have an older, male lover who was his instructor and role model, and that every adult man be the mentor of an adolescent. Such a relationship was considered necessary for the proper formation of a young person. Pederasty and military training are inseparably connected in Lace daemonian culture. Commentators have tradition ally sought to underline the chaste and ‘Platonic’ nature of this kind of relationship, and in Sparta itself this was probably the case if we believe what Plutarch and Xenophon tell us. Perhaps in Thera it was different, because of a strong influence from neighbouring Crete, whose attitudes to the body were very different from those in Laconia. The Theran inscriptions, scratched into the rocks beside the terrace where the Gymnopaidi­ai took place, occasionally point to something explicitly physical. one often cited ex ample says bluntly: Ἀμο[τ]ίωνα ὦιπ[φ]ε Κρίμων [τ]ε(î) δ[ε]. The use of the Laconian dialectal variant, ‘ὦιπε’, normally used for animals copulating, suggests that the pleasure taken between Amotion and Krimon was not particularly chaste. The reality of the festival was probably a much more complex one, in which, as always in life, there were baser fringes on the edge of what was a sacred ritual of martial arts. Looking at the elemental setting at Thera for these youthful displays—the exposed terrace with nothing but sea below, sky above, the massive rock mountain behind, and the blazing August sun—it is clear that the Gymnopaidi­ai had a symbolism and significance that resonated far beyond the ephemeral passions of Krimon and his friends.

Santorini Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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