Did the kings of Sparta commission texts to be written down by scribes?

2020.01.31 | By Gregory Nagy (rewritten 2020.02.01)

§0. My brief comments here connect with what I noted in the previous posting, Classical Inquiries 2020.01.24, about scribal exchanges of letters between Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, and Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt. Here I explore further examples of such scribal activity, this time involving the dual kings of Sparta.

Depiction of an elegantly dressed Ottoman scribe done in pen in brown ink with watercolor and gold on paper.
Seated scribe from the Ottoman court of Sultan Mehmet II, by Gentile Bellini (1429–1507). In the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA; image via Wikimedia Commons.


§1. My point of departure is a report by Herodotus (6.57.1) about special privileges granted to the two kings of Sparta in peacetime: among these privileges was the awarding, ‘whenever there is a public sacrifice’ (ἢν θυσίη τις δημοτελὴς ποιῆται), of the dermata ‘skins’ of the sheep that were slaughtered at the sacrifice (τῶν τυθέντων [προβάτων] τὰ δέρματα). Similarly in wartime (6.56), the kings were awarded the skin and the chine of sheep that were sacrificed ([antecedent προβάτοισι followed by] τῶν δὲ θυομένων ἁπάντων τὰ δέρματά τε καὶ τὰ νῶτα). As I noted in earlier comments, §16 in Classical Inquiries 2020.01.03 (especially with reference to the observations of Nikoloudis 2012 about tanneries and the procedures of tanning), one of the most prestigious products made from the skins of sacrificial animals was parchment. There is no mention, however, of parchment in the passage of Herodotus that I have just highlighted.

§2. But the context of this passage does refer to the technology of writing—albeit indirectly. Among the other privileges of the dual kings of Sparta, as Herodotus goes on to say, is that they have at their service four officials called Pythioi (Puthioi), two of these assigned to each one of the two kings, and these four Pythioi take their meals at public expense together with the kings (6.57.2). Now we come to the most telling detail: the dual kings of Sparta are officially in charge of oracular pronouncements, which they are obliged to ‘guard’ (φυλάσσειν, 6.57.4), and ‘the Pythioi also share in the knowledge’ (συνειδέναι δὲ καὶ τοὺς Πυθίους, again, 6.57.4). But how do the Pythioi ‘share in the knowledge’? The answer is obvious: these Pythioi are the official delegates sent by the kings to consult oracles, and the oracular pronouncements that they receive are then written down as texts for the kings to ‘guard’. And, primarily, the Pythioi consult the Oracle of Delphi, as Herodotus notes at an earlier point (6.57.2). So, when they receive oracular pronouncements from Delphi and from other such important oracular sources, what the Pythioi hear and then write down for the kings to ‘guard’ will be kept under lock and key, as it were, until the time comes for the kings to have these pronouncements read out loud by these same officials.

§3. And what was the material used for writing down such texts? I propose that it was parchment, produced from the sheepskins awarded to the dual kings of Sparta.

§4. As Jan Bremmer shows (1993), there is an ancient source that actually refers to a story about a text written on parchment that was seized and then entrusted to the dual kings of Sparta for guarding. The source is Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas (21.3), where we read that the generalissimo Pelopidas of Thebes, before the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, had consulted seers about whether it could be divinely sanctioned for him to perform a human sacrifice for the purpose of ensuring military victory. The seers responded by listing precedents, referring to events that happened not only in myth but even in recent history, and the first one of the historical events that they mentioned was the killing of the writer Pherecydes by the Spartans. Here is the wording (again, 21.3): τῶν δ’ ὕστερον Φερεκύδην τε τὸν σοφὸν ὑπὸ Λακεδαιμονίων ἀναιρεθέντα καὶ τὴν δορὰν αὐτοῦ κατά τι λόγιον ὑπὸ τῶν βασιλέων φρουρουμένην ‘and, with regard to recent times [as opposed to mythical times, worded at an earlier point in Plutarch’s text as τῶν μὲν παλαιῶν], how Pherecydes the wise man was killed by the Spartans and how his hide [dorā], in accordance with instructions from some oracle, was entrusted to the kings of Sparta for guarding’. As Bremmer also shows (1993:235, with reference to Schibli 1990:7), this reference to the dorā ‘hide’ of Pherecydes could be misunderstood, perhaps even in ancient anecdotal traditions as also during later phases in the transmission of Plutarch’s text, as a reference to some kind of gruesome flaying of the writer’s own body, but a preferable explanation is that Plutarch must be referring to the skin of a sacrificed animal—either to be worn as ritualized wear, or, far more likely, to be used by the writer as the material surface for writing, that is, as parchment.

§5. In this context, I quote a relevant observation by Bremmer (1993:235) with regard to ancient anecdotes he has collected about the derma ‘skin’ of Epimenides the Cretan (as for example in the Suda, under the entry Epimenides): “The expression ‘the skin of Epimenides’, which the Suda and a collection of proverbs connect with Sparta, strongly suggests that the ephors had made use of a leather scroll.” Such a leather scroll, as Bremmer goes on to observe (again, p. 235), would have contained oracular pronouncements, which he connects with what is said by Pausanias (3.11.9 = FGH 457 T 5) and others (testimonia collected by Bremmer p. 236n8) about the tomb of Epimenides in Sparta, located at the ephóreiă, which was the designated space of the Spartan officials mentioned by Bremmer, that is, of the éphoroi ‘ephors’. Here is what Bremmer has to say about such oracular pronouncements, evidently written on parchment (pp. 235–235): “Considering the competition in Sparta between kings and ephors, the latter had probably created this source of authority in order to be independent of the kings, who were entitled to consult the oracle of Delphi.” As we have already seen at §2 above, the Spartan officials who actually consulted for the kings and wrote down on parchment the pronouncements of the Oracle—for the kings to store and to guard—were the Pythioi.

Seated scribe dressed in white robes writing with a pen.
Detail of a painting by John White Alexander (1856–1915), part of the “Evolution of the Book” mural series (ca. 1896) in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Library of Congress public-domain photo, with minor modifications by Flickr user Futurilla.



Bremmer, J. N. 1993. “The Skins of Pherekydes and Epimenides.” Mnemosyne 46:234–236.

Nagy, G. 2020.01.03. “A Minoan-Mycenaean scribal legacy for converting rough copies into fair copies.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-minoan-mycenaean-scribal-legacy-for-converting-rough-copies-into-fair-copies/.

Nagy, G. 2020.01.10. “Echoes of a Minoan-Mycenaean scribal legacy in a story told by Herodotus.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/echoes-of-a-minoan-mycenaean-scribal-legacy-in-a-story-told-by-herodotus/.

Nikoloudis, S. 2012. “Thoughts on a possible link between the PY Ea Series and a Mycenaean tanning operation.” In Études Mycéniennes 2010: Actes du XIIIe Colloque International sur les Textes Égéens, ed. P. Carlier, C. de Lamberterie, M. Egetmeyer, N. Guilleux, F. Rougemon, J. Zurbach, 285–302. Pisa/Rome.

Schibli, H. 1990. Pherecydes of Syros. Oxford.

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