Sparta – Part One: Pre-Persian Wars
Sparta maintains a certain place in our modern psyche as a culture so alien to us that it fascinates throughout the ages. Sparta of c700-371 was a state based upon the principles of military excellence and perfection, dependent upon a system of slave labour and alliance systems in which the aim was to avoid war to ensure survival. By building such a dominant and fearful force, Sparta was often able to avoid conflict. Her system of governance and culture still fascinate and surprise people today, so it is only right that we have a discussion here about the Spartan system.
My main source that I will be using is Xenophon’s Politeia of the Spartans, translated by J. M. Moore (1975).
Sparta was a city situated in the Peloponnese of Greece, the most southern part of the Greek peninsular. As you can see from the map below, Sparta is situated in the South-Eastern Peloponnese, in Laconia. Over the eighth-century BCE, she fought a series of wars with Messenia, her westerly neighbour, and by the end of the century had subdued them, making them helots, or Greek slaves. The Spartan enslavement of fellow Greeks was a peculiarity in Ancient Greece, and something you weren’t seen to properly do. The enslavement of the Messenian helots allowed the Spartans to create a system of life in which the pursuit of military dominance was paramount.
As they possessed vast amounts of Helots who could till the land, Spatran Males were able to concentrate solely on the business of military training. The life of a Spartiate warrior began with the checking of a new born to see if there were any deformities or frailties in the child, and would be discarded if so. At the age of 7, a Spartiate boy citizen would be taken from his family and put through the Agoge system. This system would toughen up the boy, seeing him enter a world where his skills of combat, education and socialising would be directed by the state. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, young men would be placed into a communal system, where bonds would develop under the supervision of elder young Spartiates. Each young Spartiate would be put under the guidance of an older male system, and some argue that this took on a form of sexual nature. At the age of eighteen, the Spartiate, if successful, would be admitted to a mess hall in which all provided equal amounts of food. These men would eat, sleep and live together until the age of 30, creating a strong bond.
Xenophon states that Lycurgus create the Spartan system that we know of today. This consisted of the bare minimum of luxury, basic food, and a remarkably sparse style of living. Although many ancient authors attribute these reforms to the man Lycurgus, it is more than likely that these reforms came about piecemeal through the eighth-century BCE after a series of wars. Both men and women were to achieve the peak of physical fitness; the former for war; the latter for producing strong offspring. Men were not permitted to spend the night with their wives until after age 30, so would have to sneak out to see them during the night. The idea of sneaking and underhand attempts is also seen in the idea of stealing to survive, in effect preparing the men for the hardships of supply in war.
Sparta never possessed a large army, perhaps numbering at its height roughly 10000 citizen soldiers. Their image as a strong military power meant that they rarely fought, and they felt the need to not have a city wall as they believed the men provided the wall of the city. In order to call upon greater numbers of men, the Spartans would call upon the Perioikoi, Lakonians who were not full Spartiates but were freemen, or upon their Peloponnesian League allies.
Sparta became known as an ender of tyrant rule in Greece, opposing one man rulerships where the ruler had usurped power. This she tried in Athens under the king Cleomenes, but ended in failure and subsequently we see the rise of democracy in Athens in 507BCE.
J.M.Moore, ‘Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy’, (L.A; University of California Press, 1975)
Terry Buckley, ‘Aspects of Greek History 750-323BC: a source based approach’, (London; Routledge, 1996)
Paul Cartledge, ‘The Spartans: An Epic History’, (N.Y; The Overlook Press, 2003)
Philip de Souza, ‘The Peloponnesian War 431-404BC’, (Oxford; Osprey Publishing, 2002)
Sparta – Part One: Pre-Persian Wars