The Spartan Way
The Spartan Military
Unlike such Greek city-states as Athens, a center for the arts, learning and philosophy, Sparta was centered on a warrior culture. Male Spartan citizens were allowed only one occupation: soldier.
Indoctrination into this lifestyle began early. Spartan boys started their military training at age 7, when they left home and entered the Agoge.
The boys lived communally under austere conditions.
They were subjected to continual physical, competitions (which could involve violence), given meager rations and expected to become skilled at stealing food, among other survival skills.
The teenage boys who demonstrated the most leadership potential were selected for participation in the Crypteia, which acted as a secret police force whose primary goal was to terrorize the general Helot population and murder those who were troublemakers.
At age 20, Spartan males became full-time soldiers, and remained on active duty until age 60.
The Spartans’ constant military drilling and discipline made them skilled at the ancient Greek style of fighting in a phalanx formation.
In the phalanx, the army worked as a unit in a close, deep formation, and made coordinated mass maneuvers.
No one soldier was considered superior to another. Going into battle, a Spartan soldier, or hoplite, wore a large bronze helmet, breastplate and ankle guards,
and carried a round shield made of bronze and wood, a long spear and sword. Spartan warriors were also known for their long hair and red cloaks.
How Ancient Sparta’s Harsh Military System Trained Boys Into Fierce Warriors
Thanks in part to the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which a small force of Spartan soldiers stayed behind to fight to the death against a vastly larger Persian army, the warriors of Sparta have long been famous for their military prowess and tenacity.
Even today, the word “Spartan” conjures up an image of an awesomely fit, skillful fighter, indifferent to pain and fear.
“Other [Greek] city states had fine armies,” explains Kimberly D. Reiter, an associate professor of ancient and medieval history at Stetson University. “Sparta was recognized by most as the best.”
How did the Spartans become so awe-inspiring? One factor was the agoge, the Greek city-state’s educational and training system, which used harsh, extreme and sometimes cruel methods to prepare boys to be Spartan citizens and soldiers.
“The agoge aimed to instill soldierly virtues: strength, endurance, solidarity,” as the late Canadian historian Mark Golden wrote. But it accomplished all that at great cost, by turning Spartan boys’ childhood into what today would be seen as a traumatic experience.
Sparta was a prominent city-state in Laconia, in ancient Greece. In antiquity, the city-state was known as Lacedaemon,
while the name Sparta referred to its main settlement on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese.
Sparta was a warrior society in ancient Greece that reached the height of its power after defeating rival city-state Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Spartan culture was centered on loyalty to the state and military service.
At age 7, Spartan boys entered a rigorous state-sponsored education, military training and socialization program. Known as the Agoge, the system emphasized duty, discipline and endurance. Although Spartan women were not active in the military,
they were educated and enjoyed more status and freedom than other Greek women. Because Spartan men were professional soldiers, all manual labor was done by a slave class, the Helots
. Despite their military prowess, the Spartans’ dominance was short-lived: In 371 B.C., they were defeated by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra, and their empire went into a long period of decline.
Sparta, also known as Lacedaemon, was an ancient Greek city-state located primarily in the present-day region of southern Greece called Laconia.
The population of Sparta consisted of three main groups: the Spartans, or Spartiates, who were full citizens; the Helots, or serfs/slaves; and the Perioeci, who were neither slaves nor citizens.
The Perioeci, whose name means “dwellers-around,” worked as craftsmen and traders, and built weapons for the Spartans.
All healthy male Spartan citizens participated in the compulsory state-sponsored education system, the Agoge, which emphasized obedience, endurance, courage and self-control.
Spartan men devoted their lives to military service, and lived communally well into adulthood.
A Spartan was taught that loyalty to the state came before everything else, including one’s family.
The Helots, whose name means “captives,” were fellow Greeks, originally from Laconia and Messenia, who had been conquered by the Spartans and turned into slaves.
The Spartans’ way of life would not have been possible without the Helots, who handled all the day-to-day tasks and unskilled labor required to keep society functioning:
They were farmers, domestic servants, nurses and military attendants.
Spartans, who were outnumbered by the Helots, often treated them brutally and oppressively in an effort to prevent uprisings.
Spartans would humiliate the Helots by doing such things as forcing them to get debilitatingly drunk on wine and then make fools of themselves in public.
(This practice was also intended to demonstrate to young people how an adult Spartan should never act, as self-control was a prized trait.)
Methods of mistreatment could be far more extreme: Spartans were allowed to kill Helots for being too smart or too fit, among other reasons
Spartan Women and Marriage
Spartan women had a reputation for being independent-minded, and enjoyed more freedoms and power than their counterparts throughout ancient Greece.
While they played no role in the military, female Spartans often received a formal education, although separate from boys and not at boarding schools.
In part to attract mates, females engaged in athletic competitions, including javelin-throwing and wrestling, and also sang and danced competitively.
As adults, Spartan women were allowed to own and manage property.
Additionally, they were typically unencumbered by domestic responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning and making clothing, tasks which were handled by the helots.
Marriage was important to Spartans, as the state put pressure on people to have male children who would grow up to become citizen-warriors, and replace those who died in battle.
Men who delayed marriage were publicly shamed, while those who fathered multiple sons could be rewarded.
In preparation for marriage, Spartan women had their heads shaved; they kept their hair short after they wed.
Married couples typically lived apart, as men under 30 were required to continue residing in communal barracks. In order to see their wives during this time, husbands had to sneak away at night.
Decline of the Spartans
In 371 B.C., Sparta suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra. In a further blow, late the following year,
Theban general Epaminondas (c.418 B.C.-362B.C.) led an invasion into Spartan territory and oversaw the liberation of the Messenian Helots, who had been enslaved by the Spartans for several centuries.
The Spartans would continue to exist, although as a second-rate power in a long period of decline. In 1834,Otto (1815-67),
the king of Greece, ordered the founding of the modern-day town of Sparti on the site of ancient Sparta.
Training Began at an Early Age
According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, who wrote several centuries after Sparta’s heyday in the 400s B.C., Spartans began developing soldiers shortly after birth, when male infants were evaluated by Spartan elders.
The “well-built and sturdy” children were allowed to live, while those who were deemed unhealthy or deformed were left at the foot of a mountain to die.
At age seven, Spartan boys were turned over by their parents to the state, where they were organized into companies that lived, studied and trained together.
“The boy who excelled in judgement and was most courageous in fighting was made captain of the company,” Plutarch wrote.
“The rest all kept their eyes on him, obeying his orders and submitting to his punishments, so their boyish training was a practice of obedience.”
Plutarch portrayed Spartan boys as receiving little schooling. But Stephen Hodkinson, an professor emeritus of ancient history at the University of Nottingham,
UK, says there are hints in other sources that they received “the standard Greek elementary education in reading, writing, numbers, song and dance.”
To toughen them up even more, Spartan boys were compelled to go barefoot and seldom bathed or used ointments, so that their skin became hard and dry, Plutarch wrote.
For clothing, they were given just one cloak to wear year-round, to make them learn to endure heat and cold, and made their own beds from plants that they had to rip out of the ground with their bare hands from river banks.
According to Plutarch, as the young Spartans grew, they were required to exercise more and more to build their bodies.
As Donald G. Kyle notes in his book Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Spartan youth had to present themselves for regular inspections in the nude, and boys who didn’t look sufficiently fit were flogged.
Spartan Boys Endured Brutal Contests
In addition to foot races and wrestling, their sports included a particularly brutal contest in which two teams would try to drive each other off an island by pushing,
kicking, biting and gouging their opponents, according to Kyle’s book.
To make life even tougher, Spartan boys were fed a meager diet. Xenophon, a philosopher and historian who lived from the late 400s to mid-300s B.C.,
noted that one purpose was to keep them slim, which Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan system, believed would make them grow taller.
But the boys’ hunger was also intended to embolden them to steal food from gardens and other places
“in order to make the boys more resourceful in getting supplies, and better fighting men,” Xenophon wrote.
But to make sure they learned cunning, boys who were caught stealing were whipped.
Such harsh punishment was a prominent part of the Spartan training system.
The Spartans even turned it into an annual ritual, in which boys tried to steal cheeses from a temple altar,
which required them to evade guards armed with whips.Whipping was a test of courage and stoicism,” Reiter says.
“Boys looked forward to the public display of their fortitude.”
All Spartan men were expected to be lifelong soldiers.
As grueling as Sparta’s martial education system could be, the soldier’s life was the only option for young men who wished to become equal citizens, or “Homoioi.”
According to the edicts of the Spartan lawmaker and reformer Lycurgus, male citizens were legally prevented from choosing any occupation other than the military.
This commitment could last for decades, as warriors were required to remain on reserve duty until the age of 60.
Because of their preoccupation with the study of warfare, Sparta’s manufacturing and agriculture were left entirely to the lower classes. S
killed laborers, traders and craftsmen were part of the “Perioeci,” a class of free non-citizens who lived in the surrounding region of Laconia. Meanwhile, agriculture and food production fell to the enslaved Helots, a servile class that made up the majority of Sparta’s population
. Ironically, constant fear of Helot revolts and uprisings was a major reason why the Spartan elite became so devoted to building a strong military in the first place.
Spartans had to prove their fitness even as infants.
Infanticide was a disturbingly common act in the ancient world, but in Sparta this practice was organized and managed by the state.
All Spartan infants were brought before a council of inspectors and examined for physical defects, and those who weren’t up to standards were left to die.
The ancient historian Plutarch claimed these “ill-born” Spartan babies were tossed into a chasm at the foot of Mount Taygetus, but most historians now dismiss this as a myth.
If a Spartan baby was judged to be unfit for its future duty as a soldier, it was most likely abandoned on a nearby hillside. Left alone, the child would either die of exposure or be rescued and adopted by strangers.
Babies who passed inspection still didn’t have it easy. To test their constitutions, Spartan infants were often bathed in wine instead of water.
They were also frequently ignored when they cried and commanded never to fear darkness or solitude. According to Plutarch, these “tough love” parenting techniques were so admired by foreigners that Spartan women were widely sought after for their skill as nurses and nannies.
Were Spartans Better Fighters?
Strictly speaking, the Agoge didn’t include military training, which didn’t start in earnest until they became adult soldiers. Its real focus was to prepare Spartan males to be compliant members of society, who were ready to sacrifice their all for Sparta. Unlike other Greek city-states,
Sparta “was exceptional in its socio-political stability,” Hodkinson says. “Part of the reason for this was that the boys’ upbringing had instilled behaviors that encouraged harmony and cooperation.”
But Spartan schooling’s emphasis on fitness did help Spartan soldiers on the battlefield. “It made them tougher/stronger, more able to sustain the weight of a heavy basically wooden shield in the summer sun, better at pushing and shoving, better at stamina,” Cartledge says.
The Spartans’ real secret wasn’t physical fitness or indifference to pain and suffering, but rather superior organization. Spartan troops drilled relentlessly, until they could execute tactics with perfection.
“It was probably their training in tactical maneuvers which really gave Spartan soldiers their edge on the battlefield,” J.F. Lazenby writes in his book The Spartan Army.
“Xenophon says a Spartan army could perform maneuvers that others couldn’t, because of their training,” Cartledge says.
According to Plutarch, Spartans continued regular military training throughout their adult lives. “No man was allowed to live as he pleased,
but in their city, as in a military encampment, they always had a prescribed regimen,” he wrote. As Cartledge writes in Spartan Reflections,
it wasn’t until age 60 that Spartans finally were allowed to retire from the army—provided that they lived that long.
The stability that the agoge fostered also “led to a certain inflexibility,” Hodkinson says. For all the Spartans’ efficiency, they relied heavily on a limited set of maneuvers, and when those failed, they didn’t have a plan B.
Off the battlefield, the rigid acceptance of the status quo that the Spartan educational system enforced made it difficult for the Spartans to deal with social problems in their society, such as inequality in land ownership and a declining population.
“Eventually it produced a sort of conceptual lock when Spartans could not imagine any other kind of life,” Reiter explains. “
This made it very difficult for Spartans to accept innovation in war or politics.”
In that sense, the regimen that helped make the Spartans so tough also contributed to Sparta’s ultimate downfall. In 371 B.C., Thebes, a rival city state, defeated Sparta at the battle of Leuctra by using unorthodox, creative cavalry maneuvers that the Spartans were too inflexible to counter.
That ended Sparta’s military dominance, though their fearsome reputation lived on through history.