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(The following is an essay concerning the ancient Greek Spartans and their connections to Gor. It is but an overview of the subject and those seeking additional information can consult some of the books mentioned in the Recommended Reading List on this website)
Sparta was an ancient Greek polis, a city-state, that reached its peak during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. It was a militaristic city and thought to be the mightiest land power in Greece. Sparta was the primary rival of glorious Athens for the supremacy of Greece. The famed Peloponnesian Wars were fought between Sparta and Athens. Sparta was the ultimate victor of those wars. Besides attacking other Greek city-states, Sparta was also instrumental in defending Greece from invaders. They were instrumental in helping to defeat Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Spartan society was unique in many ways from the other Greek city-states. It can be considered the most "Gorean" of all of the Greek city-states.
The city-state of Sparta was located on a narrow plain between two mountain ranges in the southeastern Peloponnese area of Greece. The Taygetos Mountains bordered Sparta on the west and the Parnon Mountains bordered Sparta on the east. This created a natural area that could be easily defended against any potential invaders. Sparta also was situated on the right bank of the Eurotas River, a bit south of its juncture with its largest tributary, the Oenus River. Sparta was the capital of a region in the Peloponnese called Laconia. Spartans were thus also sometimes referred to as Laconians. Spartans were also sometimes referred to as Lacedaemonians because another term for the Laconia region was Lacedaemon. Though primarily a land power, Sparta possessed a coastal port, Gythium, located about twenty-five miles to the south of the city. But, the harbor at Gythium led into a treacherous section of the Mediterranean Sea, an area often subject to harsh currents and winds. Though this served as an added defense against a naval invasion, it also served to limit the naval ability of the Spartans. Consequently, the Spartans never became very adept seamen. Their strength lay on the land and they took full advantage of this legendary prowess.
the similarity of Ar and Sparta, as both are the premier land power in their regions. Even
though Ar has a port on the Vosk River, Ar's Station, it provides them no offensive power
Origin of Sparta
It is believed that the original ancestors of the Spartans were Dorians who invaded the Peloponnese region around 1000 B.C. The Dorians were one of the three ethnic groups of the ancient Greeks. They came from central Greece and swept into the Peloponnese, defeating the original inhabitants of this region. It is thought that this invasion was not a singular event but more likely a successive influx of different groups of Dorians. It is also believed that these Dorian invaders eventually settled down into four separate villages, two of which became the more dominant of the four. Over time, all of these villages united together and formed what would become known as the city-state of Sparta.
Besides the historical origin of Sparta, the Spartans possess their own myth about their city's origins. Their myth states that their city-state was originally founded by Lacedaemon, the son of Zeus and Taygete. Taygetes was one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas who Zeus placed into the sky as stars to keep them safe from Orion. Lacedaemon married Sparta, a river nymph and the daughter of the river goddess Eurotas, and then named the city-state after her.
The Spartans had one of the most stable governments in all of ancient Greece. Their system of government was also fairly unique among the varied city-states. It combined elements of a monarchy with those of an oligarchy and it even possessed some democratic elements. There may not be a single term that can properly define the unique type of government that existed in Sparta. (This form of government was not adopted for Gorean society.)
The Spartan government possessed two hereditary kings whom were generally military leaders of high prestige. The kings descended from the Agiad and Eurypontid families. The Agiad kings received greater honor due to the seniority of their family line but this did not in practice affect the power balance between the two kings. There did sometimes exist rivalry between the two royal families which sometimes led to fierce disputes. The kings maintained their positions for life. The two kings were equal in authority so that one could not act against the veto of the other. They were considered so important that they each had one hundred men assigned to them as bodyguards.
The duties of these kings were mainly religious, judicial and military. They did not possess absolute power to make decisions or set policy because they were not pure monarchs. They were actually the leaders of the oligarchic institutions of the government. The kings were also the chief priests of the city. They performed certain sacrifices and also had to maintain communications with the Oracle of Delphi. Delphi had always exercised great authority in the Spartan government. The judicial functions of the kings became more limited over time so that by 430 B.C., the kings were restricted to handling only cases dealing with heirs, adoptions and the public roads.
Initially, the Spartans permitted both kings to act as supreme military commanders during their military endeavors. But, this caused problems when the two kings differed on the strategy to use during a battle. This could lead to a defeat if the Spartan army was disorganized from not knowing which strategy to follow. In time, this policy was changed so that only one king would be permitted to command the army at a time. In the military area, the kings possessed the most power though even that would be diminished over time. The kings originally possessed the power to declare war against anyone they chose. But, during the time of the Persian wars, this right was taken away from the kings. More and more, as time went on, the kings became mere figureheads, except in their capacity as military generals. The real power was transferred to the Ephors and to the Gerousia.
There were a number of reasons for this gradual change. One reason was due to the problems when the kings opposed each other, causing stalemates and discord in their decision making. This became ineffective in the governance of the city. This would lead to a loss of prestige for the kings. Another reason was that it became too common for the hereditary kings to ascend to the throne as a minor. As the kings often engaged in military endeavors, they constantly faced the threat of death in battle. If the king were a minor, a regent would have to be assigned to be the actual ruler and that was not accepted well by the populace. A third reason was that there were too many instances where a king was suspected of having accepted bribes from Spartan enemies. Such kings would be subsequently tried, condemned and banished. This also led to a further loss of prestige of the position. Finally, the populace became happier with the Ephors, as they were chosen by popular election and represented a more democratic element in the government.
Below the two kings existed a council of elders, the Gerousia, though technically the Gerousia included the two kings as well. The council of elders was composed of twenty-eight men, all of whom were over sixty years old. They were elected by the Assembly and held office for life. The members of the Gerousia had to come from a noble family. Women were not permitted on the Gerousia. The Gerousia would discuss and make legislative and foreign policy. They also acted as the supreme criminal court. In addition, the Gerousia enacted measures that were written by the Assembly but the Gerousia could also overturn any of these measures if they did not like them. The Gerousia also formulated their own proposals that would be submitted to the Assembly for their approval.
The Assembly was made up of male Spartan citizens over the age of thirty. The Assembly's responsibilities were to elect the men of the Gerousia and Ephorate. They also approved or vetoed proposals from the Gerousia. The Assembly had only limited power to amend these proposals. In general though, they were expected to approve the Gerousia's proposals. These proposals were rarely rejected by the Assembly because the Gerousia retained the right to withdraw a proposal. If the Gerousia felt a proposal would be rejected, they would withdraw it and resubmit it when they had taken time to garner more support within the Assembly.
The most powerful part of the Spartan government was the Ephors, a group of five men who essentially were the true powers in Sparta. Originally, the kings chose the men who would become the Ephors. That changed over time so that eventually they were elected annually, chosen from the adult male citizens at large. This change developed because the Ephors were meant to be a type of checks and balances over the two kings. If the kings were permitted to choose the Ephors, there might be a conflict of interest involved. The Ephors would be more reluctant to act against a king that put them into power. To maintain their independence, they needed to be elected. The Ephors only held their office for a single year and they could not ever be re-elected to that position. The Spartans did not want such great power to remain in anyone's hands for too long.
The Ephorate led the Gerousia, Assembly, the military, the Spartan educational system, and even the infant selection system. They possessed an absolute veto power over everything decided by the Gerousia and the Assembly. They presided over civil court cases and eventually shared control of the criminal court along with the Gerousia. They even had the power to depose a king though this extreme power required great proof. The type of proof required had to be of a divine nature, such as omens or the words of an oracle such as the Delphic Oracle. The Ephors and the kings had to swear an oath to each other every month. The kings swore that they would exercise their office according to the established laws of the city and the Ephors swore they would not disturb the kings as long as they abided by their oath. The ultimate purpose of the Ephorate was to ensure the supremacy of the law, the law being of exceptional importance in Sparta.
One interesting aspect of the structure of the Spartan government is their emphasis on age. Thirty years old is the earliest age that any Spartan man can serve in any part of the government. And the Gerousia permitted only men who were over sixty years old, the age when Spartan men were permitted to retire from military service. Age was definitely thought to bring wisdom.
The Spartans embraced the law as their guide to proper behavior in all matters. The law embraced a code of honor that governed all aspects of Spartan society. The laws formed the basis for their societal structure and institutions. The Ephorate, the most powerful arm of the government, was intended to support the great significance of the law. When the new Ephors entered office, they would issue an official proclamation to the men of Sparta, "Shave your moustache and obey the laws." It is unclear why they are supposed to shave their mustaches.
The origin of the law within Sparta is shrouded in myth and legend. Sparta claimed that their law was created by the god Apollo and presented to them through the words of the Oracle of Delphi. This oracular pronouncement was called the Rhetra, which is a Greek word that translates as "enactment." The legendary Spartan ruler, Lycurgus, received the Rhetra from the Oracle and brought it back to Sparta. It is unsure whether Lycurgus actually existed or if he is only a myth. It is thought that if he did exist, he would have lived during the 8th century B.C about when the law of Sparta was being formed. There is some evidence that the law of Sparta may have actually been inspired in part by the laws of Crete. There are some close parallels between the constitution of Crete and the laws of Sparta and we know that the Cretan constitution predated the Spartan laws. There is also the possibility that the law was only approved, and not developed, by the Oracle of Delphi. It was common practice to seek the Oracle's approval on such matters.
Unlike other Greeks cities, Sparta never wrote their laws down and were actually prohibited from doing so by their very laws. Thus, the laws had to be passed orally through the educational process in Sparta. It was subsequently difficult for non-Spartans to understand the laws of the city as they had no resource to consult about such laws. The Spartans considered themselves superior to the laws of other city-states, especially any non-Greek ones. Non-Greek peoples were considered barbarians.
(The Spartan laws would be similar to the Caste Codes of the Gorean Warrior Caste. Though there were scrolls containing the Caste Codes, not all Warriors were literate so they would have had to learn the Codes like the Spartans learned their laws. The Spartan reliance on the Oracle of Delphi also mirrors the Gorean reliance on divination before they commence a major endeavor.)
Spartan society was divided into three main social classes: Spartiate, Perioeci and Helot. (These could be equated in Gorean society respectively as the High Castes, the Low Castes and slaves.) There was little upward mobility within this class system. The best that could be hoped for was that a Helot might be freed, though that was a rare occurrence. (This is unlike the Gorean Caste system where upward mobility is more accessible.)
the top of the social hierarchy were the Spartiates, native Spartans who are able to trace
their ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. Spartiates include both men
and women. The Spartiates were the only ones who possessed full political and legal rights
within the city though the rights of women were restricted in some areas. The Spartiates
were the only true citizens of the city. A native Spartan who did not become a Spartiate
occupied a lesser place within the community, on par with the Perioeci.
Perioeci is a Greek word that translates as either the "dwellers around or about" or "those who live round about." The Perioeci were foreigners, non-Spartans, who acted as a kind of buffer between the Spartiates and helots. Because of this vital function, they were permitted a great deal of freedom. They acted as the merchants for Sparta, served in the Spartan army and were required to pay taxes. They were even often permitted to live in their own self-governing communities. Though they lacked the full rights of a Spartiate citizen, they still retained much of their personal freedom and were permitted to own property. Their greatest restriction is that they were not allowed to engage in foreign affairs except for some commerce. The Perioeci, though lacking some rights, never rebelled against the Spartiates. They possessed sufficient rights and freedoms that they were not significantly opposed to their circumstances.
At the bottom of Spartan society were the helots, essentially slaves, who possessed no rights.
The two Messenian Wars were seminal events in the history of Sparta, leading to a radical restructuring of the entire Spartan society. In the 8th century B.C., the Spartan population had increased substantially. The available arable land was becoming insufficient to support their expanding population so a solution was needed. In order to acquire more land for their agricultural needs, the Spartans chose to go to war, to conquer the arable land of their neighbors. The Messenians occupied an area to the west of Sparta, just over the Taygetos Mountains. The Messenian lands were large, encompassing almost 40% of the total land within the Peloponnese region. And much of that land was fertile, readily arable. These lands posed a very tempting target for the Spartans.
The First Messenian War (c. 730-710 B.C.) resulted in a Spartan victory and they acquired all of the lands of the Messenians. These lands would allow the Spartan growth to continue for a long time to come. The Spartans chose to make the Messenians into "helots," a type of slave. "Helot" derives from the Greek term "hel" which means "capture." Yet, the Messenians outnumbered the Spartans. The male Spartiates numbered around 10,000 but the Messenians may have numbered as much as ten times that amount. The Messenians were very eager to regain their freedom and revolt against the Spartans. They had overwhelming numbers but they had to wait for the proper opportunity.
After the First Messenian War, the primary threat remaining against the Spartans were the Argives from the city of Argos. Argos was also part of the Peloponnese region. Around 640 B.C., the Argives attacked and defeated Sparta in a major battle. This was the opportunity the Messenians had sought for about seventy years. Aided by the aggressive Argives, the Messenians revolted against their Spartan masters and this became know as the Second Messenian War (c.640-630 B.C.).
This war nearly devastated Sparta but the Spartans were able to defeat their enemies, by the slimmest of margins. Even though they had won the war, their current position was not too enviable. The potential for another Messenian revolt existed and Sparta was not sure that they could prevail in another such war, especially after the great losses they had just incurred. They needed to take drastic measures to prevent their outnumbered city from being overrun by the far greater helot population. The primary measure they chose to enact was to transform their entire society into a military state. Even though Argos remained as the primary threat to Sparta, they did not feel confident enough to attack Sparta anytime in the near future. None of the other cities of the Peloponnese felt secure enough to attack Sparta either. This would thus provide Sparta sufficient time to restructure its society. If Sparta had been attacked, prior to this restructuring, they very well could have been conquered.
Thus, the Messenians remained, unhappily, as helots. Essentially, a helot was a form of agricultural slave. They worked the lands and produced the food for Sparta. The helots were permitted to retain a portion of the food for their own survival, just enough to keep them alive. The helots were not permitted to own any land though. Spartans owned all of the lands the helots worked. Curiously enough, unlike normal slavery, the helots were not considered the personal property of any individual Spartans. The helots belonged to Sparta as a whole and only the city government could free them. The effect of having all these helots engaged in agriculture was that Spartiates did not have to engage in such work. They could thus devote all of their time to military matters. In fact, Spartan men would wear their hair very long to show that they were gentlemen rather than laborers. Long hair was considered to be an inconvenience to laborers.
Helots were allowed to keep some personal possessions and practice their religion, which was the norm for most slaves in ancient Greece. But, helots also lived under the threat of violence, violence sanctioned by the state. Every year, the Ephorate formally declared a state of war to exist between Sparta and the helots. This permitted any Spartan to kill a helot without any civil or criminal penalty. Helots were beat frequently, forced to get drunk in public, made to wear dogskin caps as a sign of their inferiority and in general, treated very poorly. The krypteia was a Spartan secret society. Each male Spartiate, before the age of 30, was expected to spend two years in the krypteia. The members of this society were responsible for killing helots who were treasonous or otherwise causing trouble.
The Spartans constantly emphasized the differences between the helots and themselves. They made the helots seem inferior, undeserving of better treatment. This provided some moral justification for their harsh treatment of the helots. This has been a staple in slave owning societies, to label slaves as inferior and not worthy of freedom or respect. This makes it easier for the slave owner to treat their slaves as lesser beings.
weak or sickly infants was a common practice in the Greek world. Exposure entails leaving
an infant alone out in the wilds to die. Commonly, the decision to expose a child was
decided by its parents. But, Sparta institutionalized exposure so that the state made
those decisions. Shortly after the birth of a child, male and female, the newborn would be
brought before the Gerousia. They would then decide whether the child was to be kept or
exposed. Strong children were kept but weak or sickly ones were sent to the Apothetae, the
"place of rejection," in the hills to die of exposure. The intent of this
activity was to maintain a high standard of physical fitness. This also supported the
absolute claim of the state to each Spartan's life.
(There is one passage in the Gor novels that seems to indicate the existence of exposure on Gor but it is not a definitive passage. The passage talks about leaving an infant, with wooden skewers through the ankles, in the Voltai mountains.)
The entire Spartan way of life for male Spartans was directed toward keeping their military at its peak strength and efficiency. The training and education of Spartan boys structured toward this objective as well. And the regimentation they underwent during this education would continue throughout their adult life as well. This regimented training though did not begin until a Spartan boy was seven years old. Until that time, boys were educated at home, primarily by their mother. It was part of her duty to inculcate Spartan values into her children. Some mothers bathed their children in wine to temper their bodies.
(The Gor novels mention that free women do most of the initial raising of their children, before they begin their official Caste training. A Gorean free woman of the Warrior Caste would likely try to inculcate the values of a Warrior into her sons.)
When a boy turned seven, he would leave his home and go to live in a communal barracks within a type of military school. The system of training they received was called the "agoge." One of the intentions of the agoge was to weaken family ties and to strengthen a boy's identity with the city. This was meant to instill a greater loyalty to Sparta than one's own family. (Consider a Gorean's loyalty to their Home Stone.) The boys were taught to call all older men "father" to emphasize that their primary loyalty was to the group and not their actual families. The city felt that every adult Spartan was responsible for the actions of all the children of the city and not just their own children. In the agoge, children were divided into groups according to their age. These groups were then supervised by older boys or men. At first, the children learned basic literacy skills, reading and writing. They would engage in much physical training as well. They even learned about music. Only the sons of the royal family were exempted from this training, perhaps to avoid a potential crisis if a king's son failed to make it through the agoge.
When the boys turned twelve, their training changed and become more oriented toward military prowess. Most of their time was now spent exercising, hunting, and in weapons training. The exercises would include such matters as dancing, gymnastics and certain sports. The boys also learnt about Spartan values and the laws they must follow. At the common meals, the boys would be regaled with tales of Spartan courage and heroism. Music and literature were still taught but they now occupied a far lesser position in the overall training. Though dancing and music might seem odd skills for a would-be warrior, they were actually important matters to the Spartans. They were essential skills for the performance of the major religious festivals of the Greek god Apollo. The Spartans paid great homage to Apollo so the celebration of such religious festivals was of significant importance. Spartans would not march to war during certain religious holidays.
The agoge consisted of very difficult training. The boys learned toughness, discipline, pain endurance, and survival skills. The strict discipline was seen as essential to prepare the boys for the difficult life of a soldier traveling on a campaign. Boys in the agoge could not speak unless given permission to do so. They were also intentionally underfed so that they would be hungry. The boys were thus expected to steal food, developing skills of stealth to allow them to accomplish the task without being caught. If they were caught, they would be harshly punished and shamed. Punishments were often painful and also intended to toughen up the boys.
Any boy who could not survive the difficulties of the agoge would fall into social disgrace. He could not become a Spartiate and would thus be denied the full rights of a male Spartan. Such failures lived their lives in shame. Though such men might technically still be above the Perioeci and helots, their lives were far from enviable.
Spartan would become an official soldier at the age of twenty. He was now indebted to
military service to the city for the next forty years. At twenty, the new warrior was also
required to join one of the dining "messes" or clubs. Each such club contained
approximately fifteen members. A man had to petition to join one of these clubs and they
did not have to accept him. Some men might have to petition several different clubs before
they found one that would accept them. A new member was expected to regularly contribute
food and drink to the club. This generally consisted of barley, cheese, figs, condiments,
and wine. The new member would obtain this food from the helots working his land. A man
was expected to eat nearly all of his meals with his club. If a member ever failed to
maintain his contributions, then he could be expelled from the club and even lose his
Spartiate status. Spartans ate meat and they were infamously known for eating a black,
bloody broth of pork. Other Greeks were repulsed by this broth. Pork was popular as the
Spartans relished wild boar hunting.
At the age of thirty, a Spartan man finally became a Spartiate or Equal, with full citizen rights. He was now allowed to live in his own house with his own family. He no longer had to live in the communal barracks though he still had to eat his main meals with his dining club. He could now also hold a public office. He had to remain in the military until he turned sixty. At sixty, a Spartan man could then be elected into the Gerousia. Though he was not officially in the military any longer, he would still eat with his dining club and help with agoge training.
(The Spartans effectively were a Warrior Caste, devoted only to military matters.)
Spartan warriors were hoplites, an infantry unit and the most common type of ancient Greek warrior. They received their name from the shield they used, the hoplon. This was a round shield, about three feet in diameter, made of wood and supported with bronze. It was fitted with a strap so that you could carry it on your left arm. The face of the shield was often painted with a symbol to reflect one's city, family or other important affiliation. Most Spartans used the same symbol, the Greek letter "lambda" which is akin to the English "L." The lambda looks like an upside down "V." It is the first letter in the word "Lacedaemon," a common term for the Spartans.
The primary weapon of the hoplite was the spear and it was the primary weapon of the Spartans as well. The Spartans also carried swords, generally short swords, because they preferred to fight close to their enemy. They generally would not use bows as they despised archers, seeing them as cowardly because they would not engage their enemy in close combat. Their helmets were the common Corinthian style of Greek helmet. They once used to wear a curiass, a type of armored breastplate, but they chose to discard it to gain the added edge of better mobility.
soldiers wore scarlet robes and there are a few different reasons why this might be so. It
was believed that such robes least resembled woman's clothes, red was the most warlike
color and the color would help to disguise wounds. This style would eventually spread to
other Greek cities as well.
(The Spartan warrior resembles a Gorean Warrior. They use similar shields and helmets, without other armor. Their primary weapon is the spear and they also use short swords. The Gorean gladius is a type of short sword. Both groups also despise archers. Both groups also wear scarlet clothes, as a sign of the warrior.)
Spartan women were known throughout the Greek world as possessing much greater freedom than the women of the other Greek cities. Many Greeks considered it scandalous the way Spartan women acted and were treated by their men. These differences began with the educaion of Spartan women. Though they did not receive military training, their own education shared much in common with the training of the agoge. Their training was more physical than academic. It could include such activities as wrestling, running, throwing the quoit or darts. It was also intended to instill Spartan values into the women. Women were also taught that their lives should be dedicated to the state.
Spartan girls sometimes exercised with the boys and often both sexes wore little or no clothing while exercising. This was scandalous to many Greek cities but the Spartans saw nothing wrong with it. Nudity, of both sexes, was also common during certain religious festivals of holidays. They would march, dance and sing at these holidays. This nudity was not considered to be lewd or sexual. It was considered a natural part of their lives.
Spartan women were supposed to keep themselves physically fit so that they could bear healthy children. They were also supposed to raise their children to uphold the Spartan values. In most Greek cities, women were required to stay indoors at all times but Sparta was different. Their women were free to move about the city. As the men were often gone on military endeavors, the women had much freedom in their homes. Women directed the households, which included servants, daughters, and sons until they left for their communal training. As a result, Spartan women exercised more power in the household than did women elsewhere in Greece. Some Spartan women were even Pythagoreans, taking great pride in their education.
Spartan marriage customs also differed widely from other Greek cities. At the end of a marriage ceremony, the husband would carry off his bride by a show of force. (A custom mirrored by Gorean tarnsmen.) He would then leave her in her home and depart for a time. While he was gone, the new bride would be prepared and left on a bed in the dark. The groom would return later, make love to his new wife and then leave, to return to the communal barracks. This would continue for some time, the man seeing his bride only at night, in the darkness. This would not end until the man had turned 30 years old.
Jealousy was also a matter that Spartan society tried to squelch. It was considered counterproductive to Spartan society. It was actually considered honorable for a man to give the use of his wife to someone else who might be able to impregnate her. This most often occurred when the husband was elderly and possessed a young wife. The husband might then choose a young man, fit and well respected, to sleep with his wife. The children bore of such would still become the children of the husband. Spartans were concerned about breeding healthy children and this aided that objective. Because of this, adultery was an almost unknown event in Sparta. The Spartans valued motherhood very highly. There were only two ways that a Spartan could receive their name on a gravestone: death in battle or death in childbirth.
Gorgo, the daughter of Kleomenes and the wife of Leonidas, who died at the Battle of Thermopylae, is one of the best known Spartan woman. She was once asked: "Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?" Gorgo replied: "Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."
As the years passed, Sparta began to lose far too many of its men to wars. The birth rate began to decline, eventually being surpassed by the mortality rate. Laws were then passed requiring men to get married so they would produce children. Bachelors were fined and faced great shame. Women began to accumulate more of the wealth of the city-state, valuable land. By the middle of the 3rd century B.C. nearly two fifths of Laconia belonged to women. The number of full citizens, who had numbered 8000 at the beginning of the 5th century, had sunk by Aristotle's day to less than 1000.
Service to the State
Spartan citizens were expected to put service to their city before any personal concerns.
This was necessary Sparta's survival was precarious, continually threatened by the vast
number of helots they controlled. The individual Spartan thus lived and died for the
state. Their lives were designed to serve the state from their beginning to past the age
of sixty. The combination of this ideology, the education of Spartan males, and the
disciplined maintenance of a standing army gave the Spartans stability. Since Sparta's
well-being depended on the systematic exploitation of these enslaved helots, its entire
political and social system by necessity had as its aim a staunch militarism and a
conservatism in values. Change meant danger at Sparta.
As part of its population policy, however, Spartan conservatism encompassed sexual behavior seen as overly permissive by other Greeks. The Spartans simultaneously institutionalized a form of equality as the basis for their male social unit, the common mess, while denying true social and political equality to ordinary male citizens by making their government an oligarchy. Whatever other Greeks may have thought of the particulars of the Spartan system, they admired the Spartans' unswerving respect for their laws as a guide to life in hostile surroundings.
Nowhere else in the Greek world was the pleasure of the individual so thoroughly subordinated to the interest of the state. The whole education of the Spartan was designed to make him an efficient soldier. Obedience, endurance, and military success were the aims constantly kept in view, and beside these all other ends took a secondary place. The Spartans would have fit well into the Stoic philosophy that would develop during the Hellenistic period.
(This dedication to the state is exactly the type of devotion instilled by the Gorean Home Stone. All else is secondary to one's loyalty to the Home Stone.)
The life of a Spartan man was one of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity. The Spartans viewed themselves as the true inheritors of the Greek tradition. They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or opportunities for leisure. This is an important factor in understanding the Spartans. While other Greeks thought the Spartans were crazy in many of their ideas, the life of the Spartans did seem to hark back to a more basic way of life. Discipline, simplicity, and self-denial always remained ideals in the Greek and Roman worlds. Civilization was often seen as bringing disorder, enervation, weakness, and a decline in moral values. Spartans though could point to their society and argue that moral values and human courage and strength were still great. Thus, despite their disapproval of the Spartans, most Greeks also admired and even envied the simplicity, discipline, and order of Spartan life. Plato would have much good to say about the Spartans in his writings.
Spartiates were absolutely debarred by their laws from engaging in trade or manufacture. Such activities were conducted by the Perioeci. Spartans were also forbidden from possessing gold or silver. Their only permissible currency consisted of bars of iron. Lycurgus had banned coined money to try to discourage the accumulation of material goods. Wealth was thus primarily derived from land ownership and even Spartan women could own land privately. Moreover, Spartan women with property enjoyed special status as a result of the Spartan law forbidding the division of the portion of land originally allotted to a family. This law meant that, in a family with more than one son, all the land went to the eldest son. Fathers with multiple sons therefore needed to seek out brides for their younger sons who had inherited land and property from their fathers because they had no brother surviving. Otherwise, younger sons, inheriting no land from their own family, might fall into dire poverty.
One of the most famous and important military actions of the Spartans was their defense of Thermopylae against the massive army of the Persians in 480 B.C. Led by Xerxes, the Persian army is said to have numbered over a million men. The Persians intended to invade and conquer Greece. As the invaders entered Greece, a contingent of Spartan soldiers chose to meet them at a narrow pass in central Greece called Thermopylae. This defensive force though numbered only 300 Spartan soldiers. Some additional Greek allies joined them but the Spartans were in charge and were considered the most skilled of the defenders. The pass was considered an excellent defensive location as it was very narrow and thus the Persians could not benefit fully from their vastly larger force.
The Spartans held over the Persian army for several days, killing thousands of the invaders. Unfortunately, a Greek traitor showed the Persians a secret path through the mountains that would allow them to bypass the narrow pass. This permitted the Persians to surround the Spartan army and eventually destroy all of the Spartans. The great numbers of the invading army did not frighten the Spartans. One Spartan was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that their arrows darkened the sky in battle. The Spartan replied, "That's good news, we will get to fight in the shade." When the Spartans went to Thermopylae, then all knew that they would mostly likely die in the battle. It is said that the only Spartans permitted to go to Thermopylae were men that had children, so there lineage would continue even if they died.
The Spartan's defense at Thermopylae delayed the Persian invasion and allowed the other Greeks to prepare a better defense. Ultimately, the Persians would be defeated. It was due in large part to the courage and skill of a few hundred Spartans.
The ancient Spartans have even contributed to the English language. Two words, "spartan" and "laconic," derive from these ancient Greeks.
Spartan: (adjective)-Marked by self-discipline, frugality, and often stoicism; austere
Laconic: (adjective)-Using few words; terse