Sparta: An Ancient City of Fierce and Courageous Citizen Soldiers
The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta is famous for being a city almost entirely dedicated to the art of war. Non-war and non-politics related tasks were left to slaves so that male citizens could focus on refining their skills as soldiers. Male citizens of Sparta would begin a rigorous training program at the age of seven where they were trained physically and taught to fight until the age of twenty when they would be inducted into the Spartan Hoplite army. An important historical question is how did the city get this way? What inspired the Spartans to develop one of the most disciplined armies in ancient Greece? The origin of the Spartan lifestyle lies in a Spartan stateman by the name of Lycurgus and dealing with neighbors of Sparta whom the Spartans enslaved.
Spartan women enforced the state ideology of militarism and bravery. Plutarch relates that one woman, upon handing her son his shield, instructed him to come home "either with this, or on it" (public domain)
All male citizens of Sparta under the age of sixty were considered soldiers of Sparta. Military life for a Spartan man would begin at birth. At the age of seven, Spartan boys would be taken from their families and enrolled in an institution known as agoge in which they would go through a rigorous physical education. They were also taught reading, writing, poetry, and politics but much of Spartan education consisted of physical training and increasing the student’s physical endurance, resistance to pain, and survival skills. The boys were purposefully underfed so that they would have to become adept at stealing food without getting caught. If they did get caught they would be severely punished. Furthermore, they would also be regularly beaten and flogged to increase their ability to endure pain. As they got older, about the age of eighteen or nineteen, they would be given formal military training. At the age of twenty, they would officially become soldiers in the Spartan army and members of the assembly of citizens.
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Three Spartan boys practising archery (public domain)
As soldiers, they lived in barracks with their fellow soldiers and they ate communal meals in mess halls called syssition. Since they were supposed to focus on military training and avoid distractions, they were not allowed to accumulate wealth or live luxuriously which included not wearing garments with expensive dyes or engaging in recreational activities. An example of this is given by Plutarch in describing a Spartan camp where they had no performers or dancing girls to entertain the troops. In their spare time, the soldiers would practice and hone their fighting skills. For the same reason, Spartan warriors were not allowed to marry until the age of thirty and had to live with their fellow soldiers. By the age of thirty, Spartan soldiers would be seasoned veterans. They were finally allowed to marry and assumed more responsibilities. They could not retire until the age of sixty.
Statue in modern Sparta to commemorate King Leonidas I (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ancient historians attribute the values of austerity and military fitness to a Spartan legislator by the name of Lycurgus. Plutarch says that Lycurgus lived some time before 772 BC. According to Herodotus, Lycurgus was brother to the king of Sparta and while acting as guardian to his nephew, he went to the island of Crete and learned a better way to structure Spartan society based on discipline, austerity, and military preparedness. Before this, Herodotus claims that Spartans were “the worst governed of nearly all the Hellenes.” He also notes a version of the story where Lycurgus received the Spartan constitution from the Oracle of Delphi. Plutarch adds that he also is said to have visited Egypt during his travels.
The Spartan philosopher Lycurgus (Public Domain)
Historians are unsure if Lycurgus was a historical figure or a mythic figure, but he is said to have founded the Spartan agoge for the training of young men and founded the Gerousia. After his death, a temple was built that was dedicated to him.
Another major influence is believed to have been the threat of slave revolts. The Greek historian Thucydides writes that in the 8th century BC, the Spartans conquered the Massenians and enslaved portions of the population. Their descendants became the Helots. There are multiple origin stories for the Helots. Strabo in Geography recounts that the Helots originally only needed to pay tribute but when they refused, they were crushed militarily and enslaved. Whatever the origin of the Helots, they outnumbered the Spartans and they maintained their own families and communities which probably gave them stronger cohesion than slave populations in other Greek city-states which were typically cut off from their native families and communities.
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A Spartan points out a drunken slave to his sons (public domain)
This stronger cohesion in addition to greater numbers made organized slave revolts against the Spartan state more likely and more common. This forced the Spartans to always be on the alert in case their Helot slaves revolted. The result was that the Spartan society was always prepared for war and to defend their way of life.
Top image: Spartans from the movie 300 (Σταύρος / Flickr)
By Caleb Strom
Godley, Alfred Denis. "Herodotus, the histories." (1921).
http://www.ancientgreece.co.uk/staff/resources/background/bg1/home.html -- a page from the British Museum
Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus (translation by Bernadotte Perrin)
Plutarch, Cleomenes (translation by Bernadotte Perrin)
Strabo, Geography (translation by H.C. Hamilton)
Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War (translation by M. Hammond)