Spartans, Their Values, Customs and Lifestyle

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20120220-greek-armor-art.jpg Sparta was one of the greatest city-states of ancient Greece and for a long time the main rival of Athens. Unlike Athens which became a large power by way of trade and naval supremacy, Sparta rose through its military might and bravery. It was said that while Athens was centered around great buildings, Sparta was built by courageous men who “served their city in the place of walls of bricks.”

The Spartan army was small. It was the only professional force in Greece. In Sparta every grown male was a soldier granted a farm run by slaves. The Spartans army was trained to fight in a phalanx, using a tight gird of overlapping shields to form an impenetrable mobile unit. Herodotus wrote the Spartans fought "with swords, eyes, and with their hands and their teeth." Plato, Napoleon and Kurt Hahn, the founder of the Gordonstoun school, where Prince Charles studied, were inspired by the brutal discipline of the ancient Spartans.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Spartans were absolutely debarred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the perioeci (q.v.), and were forbidden to possess either gold or silver, the currency consisting of bars of iron: but there can be no doubt that this prohibitian was evaded in various ways. Wealth was, in theory at least, derived entirely from landed property, and consisted in the annual return made by the helots (q.v.) who cultivated the plots of ground allotted to the Spartans. But this attempt to equalize property proved a failure: from early times there were marked differences of wealth within the state, and these became even more serious after the law of epitadeus, passed at some time after the Peloponnesian War, removed the legal prohibition of the gift or bequest of land. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911 Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Later we find the soil coming more and more into the possession of large landholders, and by the middle of the 3rd century B.C. nearly two fifths of Laconia belonged to women. Hand in hand with this process went a serious diminution in the number of full citizens, who had numbered 8000 at the beginning of the 5th century, but had sunk by Aristotle's day to less than 1000, and had further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV. in 244 B.C. The Spartans did. what they could to remedy this by law: certain penalties were imposed upon those who remained unmarried or who married too late in life. But the~decay was too deep-rooted to be eradicated by such means, and we shall see that at a late period in Sparta's history an attempt was made without success to deal with the evil by much rnore drastic measures.”

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Book: “The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece” by Paul Cartledge, a professor at Cambridge University

Spartan Values

Spartan mother give a shield to her son

In ancient Sparta strength was admired and weakness was despised. The greatest virtue was bravery and the greatest honor was to die fighting in battle. The most serious crime for a Spartan was to retreat from battle. Endurance, putting up with pain without complaining and following orders without questioning were all traits that were greatly esteemed. The Spartan poet Tyrtaios wrote: "It is a novel thing for a good man to die...fighting for his fatherland. Make life your enemy, and the black spirits of death does as the rays of the sun.”

Mothers gave their sons a shield and said, “Bring back this shield or be brought back on it,” a reference to the way the dead were carried from the battlefield. Greek historians described how the relatives of soldiers killed in battle celebrated while the wives of men who survived look depressed. Men who returned from a battle were ostracized if they were seen smiling and one "coward" was even killed by his own mother.

The only two survivors of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which the Spartans saved Greece from a Persian attack, were so humiliated they committed suicide on their return to Sparta. One Spartan boy reportedly ashamed to reveal that he was hiding a fox underneath his cloak let the fox rip out his stomach.

Menelaus, the King of Sparta, was the husband of Helen, who was lured by Paris to Troy, causing the Trojan War. After the Trojans were defeated Helen was brought pack to Sparta. The Spartans built a shrine in her honor where pregnant women went to pray for children who were not deformed. Herodotus described how Athena once appeared at the temple and told an ugly girl there that she would become a beautiful woman.

Xenophon: On Spartan Customs

Xenophon, an Athenian born 431 B.C., was a pupil of Socrates who marched with the Spartans, and was exiled from Athens. He was a great admirer of the Spartans. Sparta gave him land and property in Scillus, where he lived for many years before having to move on and settling in Corinth. He died in 354 B.C.

On the Spartans and the laws of quasi legendary king Lycurgus, Xenophon wrote: “Lycurgus ... thought that female slaves were competent to furnish clothes; and, considering that the PRODUCTION OF CHILDREN WAS THE NOBLEST DUTY OF THE FREE, he enacted ...that the female should practice bodily exercise no less than the male sex..." ".....He ordained that a man should think it shame to be seen going in to his wife, or coming out from her. When married people meet in this way, they must feel stronger desire for the company of one another...and produce more robust offspring.... [Source: Xenophon, CSUN]


"....He took from the men the liberty of marrying when each of them pleased, and appointed that they should contract marriages only when they were in full bodily vigor, deeming this injunction also conducive to producing excellent offspring...An old man should introduce to his wife whatever man in the prime of life he admired for his bodily and mental qualities, so that she might have children by him... "

"He also assigned some of the grown-up boys as ‘whip-bearers’ so that they might inflict whatever punishment was necessary (on younger boys), so that the great dread of DISGRACE, and great willingness to obey, prevailed among them. Lycurgus, though he did not give the boys permisson to take what they wanted without trouble, DID GIVE them the liberty to steal certain things to relieve the cravings of nature; and he made it honorable to steal as many cheeses as possible... "

“He taught the children from a desire to render them more dexterous in securing provisions, and better qualified for warfare....I must also say something of the boys as objects of affection, for this likewise has some reference to education.... Lycurgus thought proper, if any man (being himself such as he ought to be) admired the disposition of a youth, and made it his purpose to render him a faultless friend, and to enjoy his company, to bestow praise on the boy; and he regarded this as the most excellent kind of education..."

“"Lycurgus prohibited free citizens from having anything to do with business.... they should not desire wealth with a view to sensual gratification. At Sparta the citizens pay strictest obedience to the magistrates and the laws. Lycurgus did not attempt to establish such an ‘Excellent Order of Things’ (EUNOMIA) until he had brought the most powerful men in the state to be of the same opinion as he was with regard to the constitution... OBEDIENCE is of the greatest benefit, as well in a State as in an army anda family...An honorable death is preferable to a dishonorable life.... At Lacedaemon (Sparta) everyone would be ashamed to allow a coward into the same tent as himself, or allow him to be his opponent in a match at wrestling...."

“"Lycurgus also imposed on his countrymen an obligation, from which there is no exception, of practising every kind of political virtue; for he made the privileges of citizenship EQUALLY available to all those who observed what was commanded by the Laws, without taking any account either of bodily weakness or limited financial means; but if anyone was too lazy to do what the Laws demanded, Lycurgus commanded that he should no longer be counted among the number of ‘equally privileged citizens’ (the HOMOIOI)."

Xenophon: The Spartan War Machine

Xenophon wrote in “The Spartan War Machine, c. 375 B.C.: “In the first instance, the ephors announce in proclamation the limit of age to which the service applies for cavalry and heavy infantry; and, in the next place, for the various artisans. So that, even on campaign, the Spartans are well-supplied with all the conveniences enjoyed by people living as citizens at Sparta. All the implements and instruments whatsoever which an army may need in common are ordered to be in readiness, some on wagons and others on baggage animals. In this way anything omitted can hardly escape detection. [Source: Xenophon, “The Spartan War Machine, c. 375 B.C. Fred Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 73-75]

location of Sparta in Greece

“For the actual encounter under arms, the following inventions are attributed to Lycurgos: the soldier has a crimson-colored uniform and a heavy shield of bronze; his theory being that such equipment has no sort of feminine association, and is altogether most warrior-like. It is most quickly burnished; it is least readily soiled. He further permitted those who were about the age of early manhood to wear their hair long. For so, he conceived, they would appear of larger stature, more free and indomitable, and of a more terrible aspect. So furnished and accoutered, he divided his hoplites into six morai [regiments] of cavalry and heavy infantry. Each of these hoplite morai has one polemarchos [colonel], four lochagoi [captains], eight penteconters [lieutenants], and sixteen enomotarchs [sergeants]. At a word of command any such morai can be formed readily into either enomoties [single-file], or into threes [three files of men abreast] or sixes [six files of men abreast].

“As to the idea, commonly entertained, that the tactical arrangement of the Spartan heavy infantry is highly complicated, no conception could be more opposed to facts. For in the Spartan order the front-rank-men are all leaders, so that each file has everything necessary to play its part efficiently. In fact, this disposition is so easy to understand that no one who can distinguish one human being from another can fail to follow it. One set have the privilege of leaders, the other the duty of followers. The evolutional orders by which greater depth or shallowness is given to the battle line are given by word of mouth, by the enomotarch, and they cannot be mistaken. None of these maneuvers presents any difficulty whatsoever to the understanding.

“I will now speak of the mode of encampment, sanctioned by the regulation of Lycurgos. To avoid the waste incidental to the angles of the square, the encampment, according to him, should be circular, except where there was the security of a hill or fortification, or where they had a river in the rear. He had sentinels posted during the day along the place of arms and facing inwards; since they are appointed not so much for the sake of the enemy as to keep an eye on friends. The enemy is sufficiently watched by mounted troopers perched on various points commanding the widest prospects. To guard against hostile approach by night, sentinel duty according to the ordinance was performed by the sciritai outside the main body. At the present time the rule is so far modified that the duty is entrusted to foreigners, if there be a foreign contingent present, with a leaven of Spartans to keep them company. The custom of always taking their spears with them when they go their rounds must certainly be attributed to the same cause which makes them exclude their slaves from a place of arms....The need of precaution is the whole explanation. The frequency with which they change their encampment is another point. It is done quite as much for the sake of benefitting their friends as annoying their enemies.

“Further, the law enjoins upon all Spartans, during the whole period of the campaign, the constant practice of gymnastic exercises, whereby their pride in themselves is increased, and they appear freer and of a more liberal aspect than the rest of the world. The walk and the running grounds must not exceed in length the space covered by a morai, so that one may not find himself far from his own stand of arms. After the gymnastic exercises, the senior polemarchos gives the order by herald to be seated. This serves all the purposes of inspection. After this the order is given "To get breakfast," and for "The outpost to be relieved." After this, again, come pastimes and relaxations before the evening exercises, after which the herald=s cry is heard "To take the evening meal." When they have sung a hymn to the gods to whom the offerings of happy omen have been performed, the final order "Retire to rest at the place of arms," is given.”

Herodotus on Spartan Bravery and Determination

In the following Herodotos presents a dialogue between Demaratos (a Greek) and Xerxes, Emperor of Persia, on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small band of Spartans and Greeks defeated a massive Persian army. Herodotus wrote in Book 7 of “Histories”: Demaratos said: “All Greeks are brave, but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Spartans.First then, no matter what, the Spartans will never accept your terms. This would reduce Greece to slavery. They are sure to join battle with you even if all the rest of the Greeks surrendered to you. As for Spartan numbers, do not ask how many or few they are, hoping for them to surrender. For if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet you in battle, and so will any other number, whether it is less than this, or more." [Source: Herodotus, “Histories” Book 7, translated by G. Rawlinson; revised, M. Markowski]

Battle of Thermopylae

“When Xerxes heard this answer of Demaratus, he laughed and answered: "What wild words, Demaratus! A thousand men join battle with such an army as mine! Come then, will you — who were once, as you say, their king — fight alone right now against ten men? I think not. And yet, if your fellow-citizens really are as you say, then according to your laws as their king, you should be twice as tough and take on twenty all by yourself!" But, if you Greeks, who think so hightly of yourselves, are simply the size and kind of men as those I have seen at my court, or as yourself, Demaratus, then your bragging is weak. Use common sense: how could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand — particularly if they are all free, and not under one lord — how could such a force stand against a united army like mine? Even if the Greeks have larger numbers than our highest estimate, we still would outnumber them 100 to 1."

“If they had a single master as our troops have, their obedience to him might make them courageous beyond their own desire, or they might be pushed onward by the whip against an enemy which far outnumbered them. But left to their own free choice, they will surely act differently. For my part, I believe that if the Greeks had to contend with the Persians only, and the numbers were equal on both sides, the Greeks would still find it hard to stand their ground. We too have men among us as tough as those you described — not many perhaps, but enough. For instance, some of my bodyguard would willing engage singly with three Greeks. But this you did not know; and so you talked foolishly."

“Demaratus answered him- "I knew, O king, that if I told you the truth, I would displease you. But since you wanted the truth, I am telling you what the Spartans will do. I am not speaking out of any love that I have for Sparta — you know better than anyone how I feel about those who robbed me of my rank, of my ancestral honours, and made me a homeless exile.... Look, I am no match for ten men or even two, and given the choice, I would rather not fight at all. But if necessary, I would rather go against those who boast that they are a match for any three Greeks."

"The same goes for the Spartans. One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm — to conquer or die. O king, if I seem to speak foolishly, I am content from this time forward to remain silent. I only spoke now because you commanded me to. I do hope that everything turns out according to your wishes." This was the answer of Demaratus, and Xerxes was not angry with him at all, but only laughed, and sent him away with words of kindness.”

Spartan Soldier Citizens

The Spartan army was one of the toughest ever known. Every Spartan man was required to fight. Sparta did not have any city walls, it was said, because its men were strong enough so that such walls were unnecessary. Alexander the Great left a past-it-prime Sparta unconquered and chose not to march his men there. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, September 6, 2016]

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “ In the powers exercised by the assembly of the citizens or apella (q.v.) we cannot trace any development, owing to the scantiness of our sources. The Spartan was essentially a soldier, trained to obedience and endurance: he became a politician only if chosen as ephor for a single year or elected a life member of the council after his sixtieth year,had brought freedom from military service. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911 Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Thermopylae cosplay

“From the earliest days of the Spartan the absolute claim of the state to his life and service was indicated and enforced. Till their seventh year boys were educated at home: from that time their training was undertaken by the state and supervised by the paidonomos, an official appointed for that purpose.

“From the twentieth year began the Spartan's liability to military serviee and his membership of one of the dining messes or clubs, composed of about fifteen members each, to one of which every citizen must belong. At thirty began the full citizen rights and duties. For the exercise of these three conditions were requisite: Spartan birth, the training prescribed by law, and participation in and contribution to one of the dining clubs. Those who fulfilled these conditions were the peers, citizens in the fullest sense of the word, while those who failed were called lesser men, and retained only the civil rights of citizenship.”

Birth and Death in Sparta

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Shortly after birth the child was brought before the elders of the tribe, who decided whether it was to be reared: if defective or weakly, it was exposed in the so called Apothetae. Thus was secured, as far as could be, the maintenance of a high standard of physical efficiency [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911 Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: “When a baby was born, the father would carry the newborn to the town’s elders. The elders would examine the child, looking for weaknesses and deformities. If any were found, the father was ordered to leave the child defenseless and alone in a pit called the Apothetae, where it would starve to death. Even if a child passed inspection, though, there was no guarantee it would live. When the father returned home, the mother would wash the baby in wine as an early epilepsy test. If the child was epileptic, the wine would make it break into a fit . . . and tell the mother that it wasn’t worth raising. If a baby could survive all this, it was promised a free plot of land...It’s estimated that about half of all babies born in Sparta died from either neglect or murder.” [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, September 6, 2016]

Spartans only got tombstones if they died in combat. If a Spartan died in battle, he’d be buried where his body laid, and, as a special honor, he’d be given a tombstone with his name and the words “in war” written below it. Women, who didn’t fight in the wars, could still get tombstones, but only under one circumstance: If a mother died in childbirth, she was given a warrior’s honors. To the Spartans, she had died fighting a battle of her own—and creating more boys to become the soldiers of Sparta.

Spartan Lifestyle

The word Spartan, which has come to mean disciplined and austere, was derived from the Spartans regimented life and lack of material comforts. Spartans dressed in course clothes. Their meals consisted primarily of porridge and black soup made with pigs blood. An Athenian pundit once joked that observing how the Spartans lived made him understood why they were so eager to die in battle.

Sparta was more like an armed camp than a city. The men carried their weapons with them at all times and ate in mess halls together. The primary duty of Spartan wives was to produce future soldiers and wife swapping was permissible as long as it furthered this goal.

Men were not allowed to own silver or gold. Spartan money was iron bars. Music consisted primarily of war-songs to which men danced with their armor to increases their strength. Conversation was kept to a minimum. People were expected to say little and get to the point. The word laconic comes from Spartan city of Laconia.

Rejection of a Spartan Infant

Spartan Training

Spartan training began in the womb. A pregnant woman was required to do exercises to make sure her child was strong, The Spartans checked newborn infants for physical deformities and mental problems; if an abnormality was discovered the child was tossed off a cliff.

Spartan boys were taken from the mothers at the age of seven and moved into barracks and taught to be men until they were aged 20. The new recruits were bullied by older boys, forced to play brutal games and walk barefoot in the winter, and were ritually flogged in a temple devoted to the goddess of the hunt. Those that did well were made leaders. Young boys were paired with older boys in a relationship that had homosexual overtones. Plutarch wrote: “They were favored with the society of young lovers among the reputable young men...The boy lovers also shared with them in their honor and disgrace.”

The training was mostly in the form of physical drills and the martial arts. There was not so much instruction in philosophy, music or literature as was the case a the famous academies in Athens. Sometimes boys were purposely left hungry so they would steal food and develop shrewdness and resourcefulness.

When a boy reached 18, they were trained in combat. At twenty they moved into a permanent barrack-style living and eating arrangement with other men. They married at any time, but lived with men. At 30 they were elected to citizenship.

Life of a Youth Growing up in Sparta

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The Spartans didn't write much. They had an aversion to writing literature and brevity of speech was considered to be a desirable trait so we have had to look at their society through the eyes of others. Four ancient sources- Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Plutarch provide much of the information about this much-admired and often-feared society. A key attribute of the Spartan way of life was austerity which extended to their homes, possessions, clothing and the food they ate. Only those who had died in battle or in childbirth were allowed to have tombstones and these provided limited information. There were also modest grave offerings. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“As the historian Thucydides noted, “If, for example, Sparta were to be deserted and only the temples and the foundations of buildings remained, I imagine that people in the distant future would seriously doubt that Sparta's power ever approached its fame.” Today we know the names of 20,000 Athenians and only a scattering of Spartan names and in the minds of many the story of ancient Greece is essentially the story of Athens. But in its heyday Sparta was the most powerful state in the Greek world, three times larger than the Athenian state and with its share of wealthy individuals. And it controlled its citizens literally from the cradle to the grave. |

“It began at birth. It was the state, not the father as in other Greek city-states, who determined whether a newborn male should live or die. If the baby appeared to be healthy and vigorous he would be kept; if not, he would be abandoned and left to die. Sparta was a military state, virtually always at war, and it needed a good supply of robust babies that could be trained to unquestioningly protect the interests of the state. The child, once accepted by Spartan officials, was raised at home until he reached the age of seven. At that point he left home and entered state schools to be trained to obey and serve in preparation for a life of military service that would last until he was sixty. |

“The Spartan student curriculum developed only basic skills in reading and writing. The emphasis was on content that would be useful in a military career- survival training, how to endure hardship, overcome obstacles and fend for yourself in hostile territory. Spartan youth went barefoot, they wore a single cloak in all kinds of weather and they were fed sparingly. They were encouraged to supplement their rations by stealing food and then whipped if they were caught in the process. The whip, in fact, played an important role in their upbringing. |

“By twenty, the Spartan youth had reached adulthood. At this stage he joined a “dining group” of his military peers. He ate all his meals with that group, bonding and developing a sense of camaraderie essential for hoplite warfare where all relied on each other. Sometime in the course of the next decade he would marry and live, not at home, but with his military messmates until he had reached the age of thirty. |

“Spartan girls enjoyed more freedom than their Greek counterparts in other states. They were educated by the state and their primary mission was to have children, particularly young soldiers-in-waiting. To that end they were well-nourished and encouraged to exercise, participating in a range of sports activities. Spartan women were also allowed to inherit and own property.” |

Spartan children by Edgar Degas

Training for Spartan Boys

Spartan men were so tough in part because of the rigorous Navy-SEAL-like training they endured as boys A child raised in Sparta wasn’t raised by his mother. He was raised by the state for the purpose of fighting. Their training consisted for the most part in physical exercises, such as dancing, gymnastics, ball games, and combat exercises, with music and literature occupying a subordinate position.

Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: “As soon as a boy turned seven, he was considered ready for education, known as the agoge, and he left his parents for the care of a teacher called a “warden.”Life in the agoge wasn’t easy. The children would be actively encouraged to haze and provoke each other and even to challenge each other to fights. This wasn’t a school where teacher maintained the peace; if two kids were bickering, the warden would goad them into resolving it with their fists. The warden also carried a whip at all times, and if a boy misbehaved, he would use it to beat him. The beating would be hard, but that wouldn’t be the end of it. If the child’s father found out he was beaten, then he was obliged to beat his child a second time. Anything less was considered spoiling the child. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, September 6, 2016 +++]

“During the agoge, boys only received the barest necessities. Shoes were considered a luxury, so the boys trained barefoot. Clothing made one weak against the elements, so the boys wore a single, thin cloak. And food made people fat, so the boys were only given the bare minimum they needed to survive. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t get more. The trainees were encouraged to steal food if they were hungry. The catch was that they weren’t allowed to get caught. If a boy was spotted stealing food, he would be beaten and deprived of rations, but if he was stealthy enough to get away with it, the wardens figured he had earned a second course. +++

“Spartans were taught to fight, to be tough, and—only as a necessity—to read. Everything else was strictly forbidden from the education system. Extracurricular education was considered a dangerous luxury. Spartan students weren’t allowed to spend their spare moments learning how to add and subtract or contemplating life’s philosophical mysteries. Soldiers had to obey any order without delay, so traditional education was viewed as something that would make them weaker. If a Spartan soldier was considering a career as a lawyer or the complexities of free will, he wasn’t focusing on fighting and listening to his commander—so he was kept from learning anything else.” +++

Spartan monument

Awful Food, Tough Questions and Fights for Cheese for the Spartan Trainees

Spartan food was far from great. Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: “A man from Italy who sat down with a Spartan army and joined in one their meals famously said, “Now I know why the Spartans do not fear death.” He was talking about “black broth,” a dish made by cooking meat in a mixture of blood, salt, and vinegar. Spartans ate together, with everyone sharing the same food under the same tent, and the black broth was considered the highlight of the meal. It was the only meat they served, and everyone only got a small portion. The only way to get more meat was to hunt. If a hunter took down a deer, he had to share it, but he was allowed to take a little bit of the venison home for a second course. This was the only time a Spartan could eat at home; anything else was strictly forbidden. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, September 6, 2016 +++]

“When supper was over, an under-master would sit down with the trainees and ask them questions. These questions were sort of like modern essay prompts: They’d be asked questions like, “Who is the best man in the city?” and would be expected to support their answers with reasons. Their answer had to be clever, well thought-out, and prompt. If it wasn’t, they were punished—in an extremely weird way. According to Plutarch, anyone who gave a weak answer was bit on the thumb. Life wasn’t much better for the under-master. When the question session was over, the under-master was taken out back and reviewed. If his masters felt he’d been too strict or too kind, he was beaten. +++

“The Spartans had a annual festival they called the “Diamastigosis,” and it was brutal. In this one, the boys were taken in front of a crowd and beaten with a whip until they couldn’t stand it anymore. It sounds like torture, but for the Spartans, it was a great honor. They would eagerly volunteer to be whipped in front of a crowd, wanting to prove to their city that they could withstand the abuse for longer than any other person. This was such a novelty to other cultures that, when the Romans found out about it, they started vacationing in Sparta just so they could watch it. By AD 300, the Spartans had even set up a theater and sold tickets, buying into a little commercialism to profit from the Roman Empire. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, September 6, 2016]

In another event at the festival in, a cheese was “placed upon an altar to the god Artemis. Starving trainees would then be set loose, fighting each other in a desperate battle to grab as much cheese as they possibly could. While they fought each other, older men would also be beating them with whips—sometimes even to death. It was the duty of the boys to keep strong faces throughout and to grin as they were beaten and clawed at while they fought for cheese. To the audience, this was hilarious. Great rows of people would gather to watch the show and would laugh while they watched boys brutally maim each other. The one who left with the most cheese would also be honored with the title of “Bomonike.”

Crypteia (Forced Spartan Thuggery)

Spartan boy practicing archery

The Spartans kept serfs known as called “helots,” and from what can be determined they were not treated very well. In a practice called “crypteia” (forced thuggery), Spartan boys were given daggers and minimal rations of food and sent out to the countryside to ambush and murder as many helots. There is some debate among scholars as to whether this was a form of training for the boys and a kind of terrorism to keep the herlots in line.

On crypteia, Plutarch wrote in “Life of Lycurgus of Sparta”: “"Now in all this there is no trace of injustice or arrogance, which some attribute to the laws of Lycurgus, declaring them efficacious in producing valor (andreia), but defective in producing righteousness (dikaiosyne). The so-called K rypteia at [Sparta], if it really was one of Lycurgus' institutions, as Aristotle says it was, may have given Plato (Laws 630.d) also this opinion of the man and his constitution.” [Source: Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus of Sparta 28, CSUN]

“This is as follows: The magistrates from time to time sent out into the countryside at large the most discreet of the young men, equipped only with daggers and necessary supplies. During the day they scattered into obscure and out of the way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet. But in the night, they came down to the roads and killed every Helot (Spartan serf) whom they caught. Often, too, they actually made their way across fields where the Helots were working and killed the sturdiest and best of them.

“So, too, Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War [IV.80], states that the Helots who had been judged by the Spartans to be superior in bravery, set wreathes upon their heads in token of their emancipation, and visited the temples of the gods in procession, but in a little while afterwards all disappeared, more than two thousand of them, in such a way that no man was able to say, either then or afterwards, how they came to their deaths. And Aristotle in particular says also that the Ephors, as soon as they came into office, made formal declaration of war upon the Helots, so that there might be no impiety in slaying them."”

Spartan Women, Sex and Weddings

Spartan woman
Spartan women had more freedoms and rights than other Greek women. Plutarch wrote that Spartan marriage was matrilocal and that "women ruled over men."

Spartan women were almost as tough as the men. They worked out by by running, wrestling and exercising so they could "undergo the pains of childbearing.” Girls were trained in athletics, dancing and music. They lived at home, while boys lived apart in their barracks. As adults, women participated in their own athletic events and performed naked like the men.

In Sparta women competed in front of the men nude in "gymnastics," which at that times meant "exercises performed naked." The Spartan women also wrestled but there is no evidence that they ever boxed. Most events required the women to be virgins and when they got married, usually the age of 18, their athletic career was over. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

In Sparta, the bride was usually kidnapped, her hair was cut short and she dressed as a man, and laid down on a pallet on the floor. "Then," Plutarch wrote, "the bride groom...slipped stealthily into the room where his bride lay, loosed her virgin's zone, and bore her in his arms to the marriage-bed. Then after spending a short time with her, he went away composedly to his usual quarters, there to sleep with the other men." [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Homosexuality appears to have been the norm for both men and women with more than a touch of sadomasochism thrown in. The Spartans believed that beating was good for the soul. Heterosexual sex was primarily just to have babies. There was also a lot of inbreeding. Spartan King Leonidas, the main character in the film “300", was the product of an uncle-niece marriage and his wife Gorgo was the daughter of his half brother.

Aristotle on Spartan Women

On Spartan Women, Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote: “Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state. For, a husband and wife being each a part of every family, the state may be considered as about equally divided into men and women; and, therefore, in those states in which the condition of the women is bad, half the city may be regarded as having no laws. And this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a state wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizen fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a few others who openly approve of male loves. The old mythologer would seem to have been right in uniting Ares and Aphrodite, for all warlike races are prone to the love either of men or of women. This was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women. But what difference does it make whether women rule, or the rulers are ruled by women? [Source: Aristotle, “The Politics of Aristotle,: Book 2", translated by Benjamin Jowett (London: Colonial Press, 1900)]

“The result is the same. Even in regard to courage, which is of no use in daily life, and is needed only in war, the influence of the Lacedaemonian women has been most mischievous. The evil showed itself in the Theban invasion, when, unlike the women other cities, they were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy. This license of the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) women existed from the earliest times, and was only what might be expected. For, during the wars of the Lacedaemonians, first against the Argives, and afterwards against the Arcadians and Messenians, the men were long away from home, and, on the return of peace, they gave themselves into the legislator's hand, already prepared by the discipline of a soldier's life (in which there are many elements of virtue), to receive his enactments. But, when Lycurgus, as tradition says, wanted to bring the women under his laws, they resisted, and he gave up the attempt. These then are the causes of what then happened, and this defect in the constitution is clearly to be attributed to them. We are not, however, considering what is or is not to be excused, but what is right or wrong, and the disorder of the women, as I have already said, not only gives an air of indecorum to the constitution considered in itself, but tends in a measure to foster avarice.

"Courage of the Spartan Women"

“The mention of avarice naturally suggests a criticism on the inequality of property. While some of the Spartan citizen have quite small properties, others have very large ones; hence the land has passed into the hands of a few. And this is due also to faulty laws; for, although the legislator rightly holds up to shame the sale or purchase of an inheritance, he allows anybody who likes to give or bequeath it. Yet both practices lead to the same result. And nearly two-fifths of the whole country are held by women; this is owing to the number of heiresses and to the large dowries which are customary. It would surely have been better to have given no dowries at all, or, if any, but small or moderate ones. As the law now stands, a man may bestow his heiress on any one whom he pleases, and, if he die intestate, the privilege of giving her away descends to his heir. Hence, although the country is able to maintain 1500 cavalry and 30,000 hoplites, the whole number of Spartan citizens fell below 1000. The result proves the faulty nature of their laws respecting property; for the city sank under a single defeat; the want of men was their ruin.”

Spartan State

The Spartan state was considered much more important than the rights and lives of individual citizens. Individual Spartans were regarded as property of the state from the moment they were born and they were expected to give their lives for the state. The Spartan government regimented daily life. Weak babies were left to die, education was like boot camp and marriage was regarded as interruption on the road to comradeship.

Sparta was ruled by two kings, who served jointly, with each acting as a check on the other and their power was checked by the Ephor, a group of five annually elected overseers. The kings served as high priests and led men in war. There was also an assembly, a cabinet-like council of generals and a council of elders.

The were three classes in Sparta: 1) Citizens-soldiers, the only people with political rights; 2) traders and merchants, who lived in surrounding villages and had no political rights; and 3) slaves, who mostly worked the land and were treated brutally by their masters. slaves that were killed were usually tagged as unreliable.

Historians have suggested the Spartans were so fierce and brutal because the 8,000 male-citizens were vastly outnumbered by the slaves they controlled. To keep the lower caste intimidated and in line young Spartan men were encouraged to go into the countryside once a year and kill any slaves they saw.

Xenophon: The Polity of the Spartans

Xenophon was a great admirer of the Spartans. In “The Polity of the Spartans” (c. 375 B.C.), he wrote: “I recall the astonishment with which I first noted the unique position of Sparta among the states of Hellas, the relatively sparse population, and at the same time the extraordinary powers and prestige of the community. I was puzzled to account for the fact. It was only when I came to consider the peculiar institutions of the Spartans, that my wonderment ceased. [Source: Xenophon, “The Polity of the Spartans” (c. 375 B.C.) Fred Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 66-75.]

“When we turn to Lycurgos, instead of leaving it to each member of the state privately to appoint a slave to be his son's tutor, he set over the young Spartans a public guardian — the paidonomos — with complete authority over them. This guardian was elected from those who filled the highest magistracies. He had authority to hold musters of the boys, and as their guardian, in case of any misbehavior, to chastise severely. Lycurgos further provided the guardian with a body of youths in the prime of life and bearing whips to inflict punishment when necessary, with this happy result, that in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either.

ruins of ancient Sparta
“Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger. In fact, with his feet so trained the young Spartan would leap and spring and run faster unshod than another in the ordinary way. Instead of making them effeminate with a variety of clothes, his rule was to habituate them to a single garment the whole year through, thinking that so they would be better prepared to withstand the variations of heat and cold. Again, as regards food, according to his regulation, the eiren, or head of the flock, must see that his messmates gather to the club meal with such moderate food as to avoid bloating and yet not remain unacquainted with the pains of starvation. His belief was that by such training in boyhood they would be better able when occasion demanded to continue toiling on an empty stomach....On the other hand, to guard against a too great pinch of starvation, he did give them permission to steal this thing or that in the effort to alleviate their hunger.

“Lycurgos imposed upon the bigger boys a special rule. In the very streets they were to keep their two hands within the folds of their coat; they were to walk in silence and without turning their heads to gaze, now here, now there, but rather to keep their eyes fixed upon the ground before them. And hereby it would seem to be proved conclusively that, even in the matter of quiet bearing and sobriety, the masculine type may claim greater strength than that which we attribute to the nature of women. At any rate, you might sooner expect a stone image to find voice than one of these Spartan youths...

“When Lycurgos first came to deal with the question, the Spartans, like the rest of the Hellenes, used to mess privately at home. Tracing more than half the current problems to this custom, he was determined to drag his people out of holes and corners into the broad daylight, and so he invented the public mess rooms. As to food, his ordinance allowed them only so much as should guard them from want.....So that from beginning to end, till the mess breaks up, the common board is never stinted for food nor yet extravagantly furnished. So also in the matter of drink. While putting a stop to all unnecessary drink, he left them free to quench thirst when nature dictated.....Thus there is the necessity of walking home when a meal is over, and a consequent anxiety not to be caught tripping under the influence of wine, since they all know of course that the supper table must be presently abandoned and that they must move as freely in the dark as in the day, even with the help of a torch.

“It is clear that Lycurgos set himself deliberately to provide all the blessings of heaven for the good man, and a sorry and ill-starred existence for the coward. In other states the man who shows himself base and cowardly, wins to himself an evil reputation and the nickname of a coward, but that is all. For the rest he buys and sells in the same marketplace with a good man; he sits beside him at a play; he exercises with him in the same gymnasion, and all as suits his humor. But at Sparta there is not one man who would not feel ashamed to welcome the coward at the common mess-tables or to try conclusions with him in a wrestling bout;....during games he is left out as the odd man;....during the choric dance he is driven away. Nay, in the very streets it is he who must step aside for others to pass, or, being seated, he must rise and make room, even for a younger man....


“Lycurgos also provided for the continual cultivation of virtues even to old age, by fixing the election to the council of elders as a last ordeal at the goal of life, thus making it impossible for a high standard of virtuous living to be disregarded even in old age....Moreover he laid upon them, like some irresistible necessity, the obligation to cultivate the whole virtue of a citizen. Provided they duly perform the injunctions of the law, the city belonged to them each and all, in absolute possession, and on an equal footing....

“I wish to explain with sufficient detail the nature of the covenant between king and state as instituted by Lycurgos; for this, I take it, is the sole type of rule which still preserves the original form in which it was first established; whereas other constitutions will be found either to have been already modified or else to be still undergoing modification at this moment. Lycurgos laid it down as law that the king shall offer on behalf of the state all public sacrifices, as being himself of divine descent, and wherever the state shall dispatch her armies the king shall take the lead. He granted him to receive honorary gifts of the things offered in sacrifice, and he appointed him choice land in many of the provincial cities, enough to satisfy moderate needs without excess of wealth. And in order that the kings might also encamp and mess in public he appointed them public quarters, and he honored them with a double portion each at the evening meal, not in order that they might actually eat twice as much as others, but that the king might have the means to honor whomsoever he wished. He also granted as a gift to each of the two kings to choose two mess-mates, which are called tuthioi. He also granted them to receive out of every litter of swine one pig, so that the king might never be at a loss for victims if he wished to consult the gods.

“Close by the palace a lake affords an unrestricted supply of water; and how useful that is for various purposes they best can tell who lack the luxury. Moreover, all rise from their seats to give place to the king, save only that the ephors rise not from their throne of office. Monthly they exchange oaths, the ephors on behalf of the state, the king himself on his own behalf. And this is the oath on the king's part: "I will exercise my kingship in accordance with the established laws of the state." And on the part of the state (the ephors) the oath runs: "So long as he (who exercises kingship), shall abide by his oath we will not suffer his kingdom to be shaken."

Spartan Government

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Of the internal development of Sparta” to the 6th century B.C. “little is recorded. This want of information was attributed by most of the Greeks to the stability of the Spartan constitution, which had lasted unchanged from the days of Lycurgus. But it is, in fact, due also to the absence of an historical literature at Sparta, to the small part played by written laws, which were, according to tradition, expressly prohibited by an ordinance of Lycurgus, and to the secrecy which always characterizes an oligarchical rule. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911 Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“At the head of the state stood two hereditary kings, of the Agiad and Eurypontid families, equal in authority, so that one could not act against the veto of his colleague, though the Agiad king received greater honour in virtue of the seniority of his family (Herod. vi. 51), This dual kingship, a phenomenon unique in Greek history, was explained in Sparta by the tradition that on Aristodemus's death he had been succeeded by his twin sons, and that this joint rule had been perpetuated. Modern scholars have advanced various theories to account for the anomaly. Some suppose that it must be explained as an attempt to avoid absolutism, and is paralleled by the analogous instance of the consuls at Rome. Others think that it points bo a compromise arrived at to end the struggle between two families or communities, or that the two royal houses represent respectively the Spartan conquerors and their Achaean predecessors: those who hold this last view appeal to the words attributed by Herodotus (v. 72) to Cleomenes I.: "I am no Dorian, but an Achaean."

“The duties of the kings were mainly religious,. judicial and military. They were the chief priests of the state, and had to perform certain sacrifices and to maintair~ communication with the Delphian sanctuary, which always exercised great authority in Spartan politia. Their judicial functions hafl at the time when Herodotus wrote (about 430 B.C.) Been restricted to cases dealing with heir~ises, adoptions and the public roads: civil cases were decided by the ephors, criminal jurisdiction had passed to the council of elders and the ephors. It was in the military sphere that the powers of the kings were most unrestricted. Aristotle describes the kingship at Sparta as "a kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship " (Pol. iii. 1285a), while Isocrates refers to the Spartans as "subject to an oligarchy at home, to a kingship on campaign" (iii. 24). Here also, however, the royal prerogatives were curtailed in course of time: from the period of the Persian wars the king lost the right of declaring war on whom he pleased, he was accompanied to the field by two ephors, and he was supplanted also by the ephors in the control of foreign policy.

“More and more, as time went on, the kings became mere figureheads, except in their capacity as generals, and the real power was trarlsferred to the ephors and to the gerousia (q.v.). The reason for this change lay partly in the fact that the ephors, chosen by popular election from the whole body of citizer~, represented a democratic element in the constitution wihthout violating those oligarchical methods which seemed necessary for its satisfactory administration; partly in the weakness of the kingship, the dual character of which inevitably gave rise to jealousy and discord between the two holders of the office, often resulting in a practical deadlock; partly in the loss of prestige suffered by the kingship, especially during the sth century, owing to these quarrels, to the frequency with which kings ascended the throne as minors and a regency was riecessary, and to the many cases in which a king was, rightly or wrongly, suspected of having accepted bribes from the enemies of the state and was condemned and banished.”

The Selection of the Spartan Infant by Giuseppe Diotti

Aristotle: The Spartan Constitution from the Politics

On the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) Constitution, Aristotle wrote in “Politics” (c. 340 B.C.): “The Cretan constitution nearly resembles the Spartan, and in some few points is quite as good; but for the most part less perfect in form. The older constitutions are generally less elaborate than the later, and the Lacedaemonian is said to be, and probably is, in a very great measure, a copy of the Cretan. According to tradition, Lycurgus, when he ceased to be the guardian of King Charillus, went abroad and spent most of his time in Crete. For the two countries are nearly connected; the Lyctians are a colony of the Lacedaemonians, and the colonists, when they came to Crete, adopted the constitution which they found existing among the inhabitants. . . .The Cretan institutions resemble the Lacedaemonian. The Helots are the husbandmen of the one, the Perioeci of the other, and both Cretans and Lacedaemonians (Spartans) have common meals, which were anciently called by the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) not phiditia' but andria'; and the Cretans have the same word, the use of which proves that the common meals originally came from Crete. Further, the two constitutions are similar; for the office of the Ephors is the same as that of the Cretan Cosmi, the only difference being that whereas the Ephors are five, the Cosmi are ten in number. The elders, too, answer to the elders in Crete, who are termed by the Cretans the council. And the kingly office once existed in Crete, but was abolished, and the Cosmi have now the duty of leading them in war. All classes share in the ecclesia, but it can only ratify the decrees of the elders and the Cosmi. [Source: Aristotle, “The Politics of Aristotle,” translated by Benjamin Jowett (London: Colonial Press, 1900), pp. 30-49]

“The common meals of Crete are certainly better managed than the Lacedaemonian; for in Lacedaemon (Sparta) every one pays so much per head, or, if he fails, the law, as I have already explained, forbids him to exercise the rights of citizenship. But in Crete they are of a more popular character. There, of all the fruits of the earth and cattle raised on the public lands, and of the tribute which is paid by the Perioeci, one portion is assigned to the Gods and to the service of the state, and another to the common meals, so that men, women, and children are all supported out of a common stock. The legislator has many ingenious ways of securing moderation in eating, which he conceives to be a gain; he likewise encourages the separation of men from women, lest they should have too many children, and the companionship of men with one another---whether this is a good or bad thing I shall have an opportunity of considering at another time. But that the Cretan common meals are better ordered than the Lacedaemonian there can be no doubt. On the other hand, the Cosmi are even a worse institution than the Ephors, of which they have all the evils without the good. Like the Ephors, they are any chance persons, but in Crete this is not counterbalanced by a corresponding political advantage. At Sparta every one is eligible, and the body of the people, having a share in the highest office, want the constitution to be permanent. But in Crete the Cosmi are elected out of certain families, and not out of the whole people, and the elders out of those who have been Cosmi.

“Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedaemonian because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors; for the Ephors are selected from the people. Others, however, declare the Ephoralty to be a tyranny, and find the element of democracy in the common meals and in the habits of daily life. At Lacedaemon, for instance, the Ephors determine suits about contracts, which they distribute among themselves, while the elders are judges of homicide, and other causes are decided by other magistrates.

Problems with the Spartan Constitution According to Aristotle

On some defects in the Spartan Constitution, Aristotle wrote in “Politics” (c. 340 B.C.): “There is a tradition that, in the days of their ancient kings, they were in the habit of giving the rights of citizenship to strangers, and therefore, in spite of their long wars, no lack of population was experienced by them; indeed, at one time Sparta is said to have numbered not less than 10,000 citizens Whether this statement is true or not, it would certainly have been better to have maintained their numbers by the equalization of property. Again, the law which relates to the procreation of children is adverse to the correction of this inequality. For the legislator, wanting to have as many Spartans as he could, encouraged the citizens to have large families; and there is a law at Sparta that the father of three sons shall be exempt from military service, and he who has four from all the burdens of the state. Yet it is obvious that, if there were many children, the land being distributed as it is, many of them must necessarily fall into poverty. [Source: Aristotle, “The Politics of Aristotle,” translated by Benjamin Jowett (London: Colonial Press, 1900), pp. 30-49]

Spartan Great Rhetra

“The Lacedaemonian constitution is defective in another point; I mean the Ephoralty. This magistracy has authority in the highest matters, but the Ephors are chosen from the whole people, and so the office is apt to fall into the hands of very poor men, who, being badly off, are open to bribes. There have been many examples at Sparta of this evil in former times; and quite recently, in the matter of the Andrians, certain of the Ephors who were bribed did their best to ruin the state. And so great and tyrannical is their power, that even the kings have been compelled to court them, so that, in this way as well together with the royal office, the whole constitution has deteriorated, and from being an aristocracy has turned into a democracy. The Ephoralty certainly does keep the state together; for the people are contented when they have a share in the highest office, and the result, whether due to the legislator or to chance, has been advantageous. For if a constitution is to be permanent, all the parts of the state must wish that it should exist and the same arrangements be maintained. This is the case at Sparta, where the kings desire its permanence because they have due honor in their own persons; the nobles because they are represented in the council of elders (for the office of elder is a reward of virtue); and the people, because all are eligible to the Ephoralty. The election of Ephors out of the whole people is perfectly right, but ought not to be carried on in the present fashion, which is too childish. Again, they have the decision of great causes, although they are quite ordinary men, and therefore they should not determine them merely on their own judgment, but according to written rules, and to the laws. Their way of life, too, is not in accordance with the spirit of the constitution — they have a deal too much license; whereas, in the case of the other citizens, the excess of strictness is so intolerable that they run away from the law into the secret indulgence of sensual pleasures.

“Again, the council of elders is not free from defects. It may be said that the elders are good men and well trained in manly virtue; and that, therefore, there is an advantage to the state in having them. But that judges of important causes should hold office for life is a disputable thing, for the mind grows old as well as the body. And when men have been educated in such a manner that even the legislator himself cannot trust them, there is real danger. Many of the elders are well known to have taken bribes and to have been guilty of partiality in public affairs. And therefore they ought not to be irresponsible; yet at Sparta they are so. But (it may be replied), 'All magistracies are accountable to the Ephors.' Yes, but this prerogative is too great for them, and we maintain that the control should be exercised in some other manner. Further, the mode in which the Spartans elect their elders is childish; and it is improper that the person to be elected should canvass for the office; the worthiest should be appointed, whether he chooses or not. And here the legislator clearly indicates the same intention which appears in other parts of his constitution; he would have his citizens ambitious, and he has reckoned upon this quality in the election of the elders; for no one would ask to be elected if he were not. Yet ambition and avarice, almost more than any other passions, are the motives of crime.

“Whether kings are or are not an advantage to states, I will consider at another time; they should at any rate be chosen, not as they are now, but with regard to their personal life and conduct. The legislator himself obviously did not suppose that he could make them really good men; at least he shows a great distrust of their virtue. For this reason the Spartans used to join enemies with them in the same embassy, and the quarrels between the kings were held to be conservative of the state.

“Neither did the first introducer of the common meals, called 'phiditia,' regulate them well. The entertainment ought to have been provided at the public cost, as in Crete; but among the Lacedaemonians every one is expected to contribute, and some of them are too poor to afford the expense; thus the intention of the legislator is frustrated. The common meals were meant to be a popular institution, but the existing manner of regulating them is the reverse of popular. For the very poor can scarcely take part in them; and, according to ancient custom, those who cannot contribute are not allowed to retain their rights of citizenship.

“The law about the Spartan admirals has often been censured, and with justice; it is a source of dissension, for the kings are perpetual generals, and this office of admiral is but the setting up of another king. The charge which Plato brings, in the Laws, against the intention of the legislator, is likewise justified; the whole constitution has regard to one part of virtue only — the virtue of the soldier, which gives victory in war. So long as they were at war, therefore, their power was preserved, but when they had attained empire they fell for of the arts of peace they knew nothing, and had never engaged in any employment higher than war. There is another error, equally great, into which they have fallen. Although they truly think that the goods for which men contend are to be acquired by virtue rather than by vice, they err in supposing that these goods are to be preferred to the virtue which gains them.

“Once more: the revenues of the state are ill-managed; there is no money in the treasury, although they are obliged to carry on great wars, and they are unwilling to pay taxes. The greater part of the land being in the hands of the Spartans, they do not look closely into one another's contributions. The result which the legislator has produced is the reverse of beneficial; for he has made his city poor, and his citizens greedy. Enough respecting the Spartan constitution, of which these are the principal defects.”

Art from Archaic-Period Sparta

Spartan relief

Contrasting the austerity of Sparta (Lacedaemon) to the rich artistic scene in Athens, Thucydides wrote at the end of the fifth century B.C. in “The Peloponnesian War,” Book 1:1:“I suppose if Lacedaemon (Sparta) were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent for her power. … [A]s the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages, after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is."

“Painted pottery was produced in Laconian workshops already in the eighth century B.C., in a local version of the Geometric style, and circulated to most regions and centers of the Greek world. After the mainly nonfigural decoration of the Orientalizing period, around 630 B.C., Laconian vase painters adopted the black-figure technique from Corinth, at about the same time the more famous and important Athenian black-figure style began. Although it cannot be compared to the Athenian in quantity and in artistic invention, Laconian black-figure vase painting produced a characteristic style and reached even remote regions of the Mediterranean, beyond the boundaries of the Greek world. Its heyday coincides roughly with the second and third quarters of the sixth century B.C., when five leading masters and some lesser painters were active. The most popular pottery shape was a local variant of the kylix (a rather shallow, two-handled drinking cup on a more or less tall stem), usually decorated with a figural scene in the tondo and with ornamental rows and compact black bands on the exterior. In the tondos, mythological subjects are frequent, alternating with scenes from real life, which, however, always bear a heroic connotation. Laconian black-figure painters had a predilection for special variations on conventional mythological scenes, symbolic figures like winged human figures, sirens, and sphinxes, and floral ornamental patterns including pomegranates and tendrils . A specific Laconian vase shape is the lakaina, which, however, was never decorated with figural scenes. Laconian pottery was widely distributed in the Greek East (Samos, Rhodes), in North Africa, where part of the Greek population claimed Spartan origins (Naucratis, Cyrene), in Southern Italy (where Taras, the only city-state founded by Spartans in the West, could play a role as a center of distribution), Sicily, and Etruria. It can be argued that the representation of myth and life seen on Laconian vases also inspired some local artistic creations in the Greek West and in Etruria. \^/

“The Spartan sanctuary of Artemis Orthia is also the find-spot of other unusual series of votive offerings, among which are the curious tiny lead relief-figurines, representing a winged goddess , a variety of human figures, and different kinds of animals. \^/

“Literary sources confirm that in the sixth century B.C., Sparta was also a major artistic center and home to several important artists and workshops. Some of the artists may have been immigrants, mainly of East Greek origin, such as Bathykles of Magnesia, whose elaborate "throne" of Apollo in Amyclae is described in detail by Pausanias (Description of Greece, Book 3: 18.6–19.5). Others seem to have been born and educated in Sparta, such as Gitiadas, creator of the cult statue of Athena Chalkioikos and of prestigious votive gifts to Artemis in Amyclae (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 3:18.7 and 4:14.2). While these works of art, however famous in late antiquity, are now lost, we can rely on some extant stone sculptures for an idea of Laconian large-scale art: such works include the Archaic Spartan hero reliefs, especially the monumental piece found in Chrysapha, and an early sixth-century B.C. female head in Olympia, which can be connected with Sparta on firm stylistic grounds. \^/

“In the second half and particularly in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C., Laconian crafts declined in quantity and quality. Laconian painted pottery was driven out of its old markets by Athenian exports. There were still remarkable achievements in bronze statuary, as evinced by a hollow-cast bronze statue head in Boston, but gradually Laconian artists abandoned the characteristic stylistic traits of the region and adopted more generic conventions of Late Archaic Greek art.” \^/

Bronze Art from Archaic-Period Sparta

Agnes Bencze and Péter Pázmány wrote: “An outstanding field of Laconian art and craft was bronzeworking, in particular small-scale bronze sculpture and the production of decorated bronze vessels. Solid cast, small-scale bronze figures usually embellished vessels, tripods, mirrors, and other utensils; however, isolated pieces found in sanctuaries could also have been votive offerings on their own. A characteristic Spartan figural type can already be recognized in the eighth century B.C. in the representation of horses, a widespread subject in early Greek small-scale bronze sculpture: among these extremely abstract renderings of the late Geometric period, a large number of statuettes found in Laconia and in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia can be ascribed to Laconian craftsmen. [Source: Agnes Bencze, Department of Art History, Péter Pázmány Catholic University, Budapest, June 2014, \^/]

Spartan amphorae

“Towards the end of the seventh century B.C., Laconian bronzeworkers began to produce magnificent decorated vessels and other artistic objects. The greatest assets of Laconian workshops are large kraters (mixing bowls) and smaller hydriai (water jars), made by hammering and decorated with solid cast figures, ranging from floral ornaments and snakes to animal and human protomes and mythological figures. Vertical handles can assume the shape of a human figure; in other cases, mainly on the earlier pieces, we find a pair of lions or the face of a goddess at the base of a handle or below the rim. Laconian bronze vessels are distinguished essentially on stylistic grounds from contemporary Corinthian, Argive, Athenian, and other products, taking into account both the shape and technical traits of the vessels themselves and the rendering of the figural decoration. One particular class of bronze objects can be entirely ascribed to Sparta on the account of their special iconography: disk-shaped mirrors supported by figures of nude girls. The subject of naked women is extremely rare in archaic Greek art, but the conspicuously young, almost childish female figure, naked except for a series of ritual attributes, can be plausibly ascribed to Laconia, where the local cult of Artemis Orthia may have inspired this unusual iconography. Sometimes Spartan mirrors of this type were exported as well, with examples from as far away as Cyprus. \^/

“Laconian bronze artifacts were especially popular in the West: they were not only exported to Southern Italy, Sicily, and Central Italy, but also inspired important local productions of bronze artifacts. While in the case of painted pottery, imports and local imitations can be distinguished rather clearly, the same task becomes extremely complicated with bronzes. In fact, decorated bronze artifacts were prestigious goods and traveled along different itineraries than pottery, reaching sometimes surprisingly distant destinations. Craftsmen specialized in this art could travel more easily, following commissions to remote regions. They could settle down in new places and found new workshops whose stylistic and iconographic repertory could derive at least partly from the tradition of their founders. For this reason, often fine bronzes are tentatively ascribed to a Spartan workshop, although discovered in Italy, or even beyond, in France or Central Europe. However, these attributions are subject to long debates, sometimes without a real possibility of conclusion. This problem is particularly evident in Southern Italy, where a number of bronze artifacts show characteristic traits that recall the Laconian tradition, nevertheless they cannot be ascribed to Sparta with certainty. A famous example is an elaborate tripod found in Metaponto.” \^/

The Film 300

The film “300" went a long way in introducing the Spartans and their ethos to the modern general public. Although the New York Times called the film excessively violent and stupid it gave viewers some insight into the harsh training the Spartans endured to make them as tough and fierce as they were and showed how that paid off the Greeks in the Spartans’ heroic defense at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

“300" was shot almost exclusively in a Montreal warehouse, using blue screen graphics and imagery. Earning more than $500 million at the box office globally, it was based on a Frank Miller graphic novel which in turn was inspired by the 1962 film “300 Spartans”.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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