The Spartan Way
Spartan children were placed in a military-style education program.
At the age of 7, Spartan boys were removed from their parents’ homes and began the “agoge,” a state-sponsored training regimen designed to mold them into skilled warriors and moral citizens.
Separated from their families and housed in communal barracks, the young soldiers-in-waiting were instructed in scholastics, warfare, stealth, hunting and athletics.
At age 12, initiates were deprived of all clothing save for a red cloak and forced to sleep outside and make their own beds from reeds.
To ready them for a life in the field, the boy soldiers were also encouraged to scavenge and even steal their food, though if detected they were punished with floggings.
Just as all Spartan men were expected to be fighters, all women were expected to bear children. Spartan girls were allowed to remain with their parents, but they were also subjected to a rigorous education and training program.
While boys were readied for a life on campaign, girls practiced dance, gymnastics and javelin and discus throwing, which were thought to make them physically strong for motherhood.
Spartan youths were ritualistically beaten and flogged.
One of Sparta’s most brutal practices involved a so-called “contest of endurance” in which adolescents were flogged—sometimes to the death—in front of an altar at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.
Known as the “diamastigosis,” this annual practice was originally used as both a religious ritual and a test of the boys’ bravery and resistance to pain. It later devolved into an outright blood sport after Sparta
went into decline and fell under control of the Roman Empire. By the third century A.D. there was even an amphitheater constructed so that scores of tourists could cheer on the grisly ordeal.
Hazing and fighting were encouraged among Spartan children.
Much of the Spartan agoge involved typical school subjects like reading, writing, rhetoric and poetry, but the training regimen also had a vicious side. To toughen the young warriors and encourage their development as soldiers,
instructors and older men would often instigate fights and arguments between trainees. The agoge was partially designed to help make the youths resistant to hardships like cold, hunger and pain, and boys who showed signs of cowardice or timidity were subject to teasing and violence by peers and superiors alike.
Even Spartan girls were known to participate in this ritualized hazing. During certain religious and state ceremonies, girls would stand before
Spartan dignitaries and sing choral songs about the young men of the agoge, often singling out specific trainees for ridicule in order to shame them into stepping up their performanc
Food was intentionally kept scarce, and poor fitness was cause for ridicule.
When a Spartan man completed the main phase of the agoge at around age 21, he was elected to a “syssitia”—a military-style mess where citizens gathered for public meals.
To prepare soldiers for the strain of war and discourage poor fitness, the rations doled out at these communal dining halls were always bland and slightly insufficient.
Spartans were renowned for their devotion to physical fitness and proper diet, and they reserved a special loathing for overweight citizens, who were publicly ridiculed and risked being banished from the city-state.
Wine was a staple of the Spartan diet, but they rarely drank to excess and often cautioned their children against drunkenness.
n some cases, they would even force Helot slaves to get wildly inebriated as a way of showing young Spartans the negative effects of alcohol.
Spartan men were not allowed to live with their wives until age 30.
Spartan society didn’t discourage romantic love, but marriage and childrearing were both subject to some peculiar cultural and governmental constraints.
The state counseled that men should marry at age 30 and women at 20. Since all men were required to live in a military barracks until 30, couples who married earlier were forced to live separately until the husband completed his active duty military service.
The Spartans saw marriage primarily as a means for conceiving new soldiers, and citizens were encouraged to consider the health and fitness of their mate before tying the knot.
In fact, husbands who were unable to have children were expected to seek out virile substitutes to impregnate their wives. Likewise, bachelors were seen as neglecting their duty and were often publically mocked and humiliated at religious festivals.
Surrender in battle was the ultimate disgrace.
Spartan soldiers were expected to fight without fear and to the last man. Surrender was viewed as the epitome of cowardice, and warriors who voluntarily laid down their arms were so shamed that they often resorted to suicide.
According to the ancient historian Herodotus, two Spartan soldiers who missed out on the famous Battle of Thermopylae returned to their homeland disgraced.
One later hanged himself, and the other was only redeemed after he died fighting in a later engagement.
Even Spartan mothers were known for their do-or-die approach to military campaigns. Spartan women are said to have sent their sons off to war with a chilling reminder:
Return with your shield or on it.” If a Spartan trooper died in battle, he was viewed as having completed his duty as a citizen. In fact,
the law mandated that only two classes of people could have their names inscribed on their tombstones: women who died in childbirth and men who fell in combat.
It isn’t surprising that people have been convinced of the reality of the Trojan War.
The grim realities of battle are described so unflinchingly in the Iliad that it is hard to believe they were not based on observation.
A soldier dies by the water and “eels and fish make busy around him, feeding upon and devouring the fat around his kidneys”.
Achilles spears Hector “at the gullet, where a man’s life is most quickly destroyed”, as Martin Hammond translated it. Troy, too, is portrayed in such vivid colour in the epic that a reader cannot help but to be transported to its magnificent walls.
It was in fact the prospect of rediscovering Homer’s Troy that led the rich Prussian businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, to travel to what is now Turkey in the late 19th Century.
Told of a possible location for the city, at Hisarlik on the west coast of modern Turkey, Schliemann began to dig, and uncovered a large number of ancient treasures, many of which are now on display at the British Museum.
Although he initially attributed many finds to the Late Bronze Age – the period in which Homer set the Trojan War – when they were in fact centuries older, he had excavated the correct location.
Most historians now agree that ancient Troy was to be found at Hisarlik. Troy was real.
Evidence of fire, and the discovery of a small number of arrowheads in the archaeological layer of Hisarlik that corresponds in date to the period of Homer’s Trojan War, may even hint at warfare.
The Greeks found in the legacy of the Trojan War an explanation for the bloody and inferior world in which they lived
The Greeks found in the legacy of the Trojan War an explanation for the bloody and inferior world in which they lived.
Achilles and Odysseus had inhabited an age of heroes. Their age had now died, leaving behind it all the bloodthirstiness, but none of the heroism or martial excellence, of the Trojan War.
Even the immediate aftermath of the war was full of violence. In a play inspired by Homer, and translated by Louis MacNeice, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus described, after the war,
Clytemnestra murdering her husband, Agamemnon, “Who carelessly, as if it were a head of a sheep/Out of the abundance of his fleecy flocks,/Sacrificed his own daughter”, Iphigenia, to appease a goddess so he might have a fair wind for his voyage to Troy.
Regardless of how connected it is to fact, The Trojan War myth had a lasting impact on the Greeks and on us. Whether it was inspired by a war waged long ago, or was simply an ingenious invention,
it left its mark on the world, and remains as such of monumental historic importance.
A historic Trojan War would have been quite different from the one that dominates Homer’s epic.
It is hard to imagine a war taking place on quite the scale the poet described, and lasting as long as 10 years when the citadel was fairly compact, as archaeologists have discovered.
The behaviour of the soldiers in Homer’s war, though, seems all too human and real.
Homer’s genius was to elevate universal conflict into something more profound so as to highlight the realities of warfare.
There would have been no gods influencing the course of action on a Bronze Age battlefield, but men who found themselves overwhelmed in a bloody fray could well have imagined there were, as the tide turned against them.
Homer captured timeless truths in even the most fantastical moments of the poem.
There also survive inscriptions made by the Hittites, an ancient people based in central Turkey, describing a dispute over Troy, which they knew as ‘Wilusa’.
None of this constitutes proof of a Trojan War. But for those who believe there was a conflict, these clues are welcome.