Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

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Religious role of the kings

See pp.128-130 Divination and oracles

  • The kings were responsible for consulting and keeping safe the oracle at Delphi – appointed pithioi to consult and report back
  • A mantis (seer) accompanied the king on campaigns and interpreted omens for him. Sacrifices were made before crossing borders and before battle. Brennan suggests that there may have been manipulation of the sacrifices to avoid battle when their prospects looked poor.
  • “Now first, while still at home, he sacrifices to Zeus the Leader and the associated gods. If the sacrifice then appears favourable, the Fire-bearer takes the fire from the altar and conveys it to the frontier of the country, where the king sacrifices again to Zeus and Athena. Only after both these divinities have reacted favourably does he cross the frontier of the country; and the fire from these sacrifices is conveyed onwards without ever being extinguished, while every type of victim goes with them. In every instance when he is making a sacrifice he begins the operation before daybreak, with the aim of being the first to win the god’s favour.” Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 13

According to Herodotus, The Histories, Bk.VI 65-60:
  • They were priests of Zeus – Zeus Sparta and Zeus Uranios
  • They could sacrifice as many cattle as they like before war, and keep the hides and backs
  • At a sacrifice, they had the privilege to eat first at the feast; receive double portions; right to pour the first libation and to keep the hide of any animal sacrificed
  • The received a sacrificial animal at new moon and 7th of month

According to Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 1:
  • the kings are associated with Herakles: “Now of course the most recent Spartan kings were in fact Heraclids by ancestry, but Xenophon evidently also wanted to call the first kings Heraclids, as being closely connected with Heracles.”

References to unfavourable omens:

“At about the same time the Spartans in full force, under the command of their King, Agis, the son of Archidamus, marched out to Leuctra on their frontier opposite Mount Lycaeum... However the sacrifices for crossing the frontier did not appear favourable, and the Spartans returned home themselves.” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.54

“The Spartans did march out as far as Caryae, but on this occasion, too, the frontier sacrifices were unfavourable, and so they went back again.” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.55

“In the following winter the Spartans planned to invade the territory of Argos, but when the sacrifices for crossing the frontier turned out unfavourably, they gave up the expedition.” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.116