Who were the Greek warrior Spartans?
The Peloponnesian peninsula sits at the south west corner of Greece, poised like a soccer ball across a narrow peninsula at the foot of mainland Greece. In the easternmost corner of the Peloponnesus, at one time sat the region known as Laconia. The principal city of Laconia was Sparta. These Spartans or Lacedaemonians formed a unique society organized along communal and militaristic principles, a society that has been described by most historians as stagnant and has seldom evoked words of praise. One's first obligation as a Spartan was to the state, and one's noblest virtue was to lay down one's life for the state.
Approximately 600 years before Christ, Sparta was feeling expansionistic pressure due to population growth and food scarcity and consequently launched a westward thrust against its neighboring state, Messenia. Sparta succeeded in conquering Messenia, but this led to a curious situation. What was Sparta to do with these conquered peoples who outnumbered them ten to one? An occupying army meant troops wasted plus the threat of revolt. The solution was to put the conquered Messenians to work laboring in Spartan fields. These Spartan serfs, who came to be known as helots, were to eventually comprise one of the three layers of Spartan society. However, the helots proved to be a constant danger to Sparta, for the danger of revolt was ever present.
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Threatened by Messenian revolt and hostile neighbors, Spartan males were trained from birth to be functioning members of an armed camp. Spartan infants were assessed by the state at birth as to whether they had the robust qualities requisite to become warriors. Weakling infants were left in the mountains to die. Surviving males were thrust into military training at age seven. Made to endure the cold, naked or with minimal clothing, and fed only black broth and rough fare, Spartan boys were encouraged to steal food. The idea was resultant cleverness would help in foraging when, as soldiers, they later took part in warfare; while the self-denial imposed on the youth was designed to toughen bodies and make Spartans indifferent to hardship. The classic, but no doubt apocryphal story of this indifference to pain is the legend of the Spartan boy who had stolen a fox, which he concealed under his cloak. Rather than reveal his secret, so the story goes, the lad allowed the fox to gnaw into his stomach.
Literacy was not a part of Spartan education, for reading and writing played no role in a soldier's life. Nor were the arts a part of Spartan training. In fact, the arts--with the exception of martial music--unlike in neighboring Athens, were considered a positive hindrance to the development of military virtues. What was valued was silence, stoicism in the face of suffering, and speaking briefly and to the point; hence, even today we call a terse individual "laconic," in reference to the Spartan state of Laconia.
At age 20, Spartan boys became warriors or what the Spartans called hoplites. A hoplite was somewhat comparable to the Medieval knight in that his equipment was expensive, though in the case of the hoplite it did not involve ownership of a war horse. The hoplite, instead, had to own a shield, sword, spear, and armor. Like other Greeks, the Spartans fought in massed ranks or phalanxes that hoped to scatter the enemy by sheer weight of numbers and then slaughter them individually.
Upon reaching adulthood or age 30, the hoplite was entitled to an equal share in Spartan agricultural land, land which was actually farmed by helots. Now, too, as an equal, the adult warrior could live at home with his bride although he continued to eat in a shared, military mess hall. At age 60 his term of military service ended. Oddly, however, despite the ultra-masculinity of Spartan values, it is believed that homosexuality was somewhat widespread.
The third category of Spartan citizens was the perioeci, this class included foreigners, tradesmen, and adults who had not qualified for hoplite status. Women, in Sparta, experienced relatively benign conditions compared to the rest of ancient Greece where women were political ciphers and never held office. Like males, Spartan women were not trained in literacy, but endured a rigorous regime of physical training. Furthermore, there were no white gowns at a Spartan marriage ceremony; rather she was abducted and sexual relations were to be carried on in a clandestine manner. Her husband was taught that to be seen going and coming from his wife was disgraceful; therefore, it was said that some men often saw their first child before gazing upon the face of their wives.
Spartan government was unusual. Two kings acted as priests. Below the kings sat 28 elderly hoplite nobles who had reached the age of 60. The remainder of the hoplites composed a general assembly. However, the ultimate power in Sparta rested with five ephors who essentially controlled all major decisions of state.
Lycurgus is the single figure most often associated with Sparta. Whether or not he was an actual figure is somewhat debatable, for example, he is said to have been a descendant of Hercules. Supposedly assuming rule circa 800 B.C., Lycurgus is said to have been the author of many of the unique features of Spartan life. For instance, he was supposed to have instituted the practice of scourge bearing wherein older boys were given whips to terrorize younger boys to teach the virtue of obedience. It was, also, Lycurgus who taught that the obligation of the citizen was to practice virtue and die an honorable death. And it was Lycurgus who decreed that no Spartan should engage in business, nor possess silver and gold. And finally, it was said to be Lycurgus who taught that the child was the possession of the state rather than its biological parents. Thus, Lycurgus taught that it was the obligation of older males to introduce their wives to younger, more vigorous male sexual partners for purposes of breeding.
The high point of Spartan hegemony was the 5th Century B.C. with the conquest of Athens, a city state its opposite in many ways. However, Sparta's doom was nearing; they were defeated in battle by the Thebans in 371, bringing to an end a unique chapter in Greek history. The ancient city was finally sacked by Visigoths in 396 A.D.
Despite their repellent militarism, perhaps, the Spartans had something to teach us about self-discipline and the rejection of luxury. After all, it was Socrate who was said to have said, "The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta.. They (the Spartans) conceal their wisdom and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle, rather than by virtue of their wisdom."
119857.doc 10/05/07 06:16hrs Tom Davies ( FGH ) 4th