Ancient Greece


Sparta

   It's hard for textbooks to say anything nice about the Spartans. Take up any world history textbook and read; you'll find that the Spartans were "an armed camp," "brutal," "culturally stagnant," "economically stagnant," "politically stagnant," and other fun things. The reality, of course, lies somewhere behind the value judgements. Greek history does, after all, come down to us through the eyes of the other major city-state in Greece, Athens, a bitter enemy and rival of Sparta. The two represent diametrically opposed concepts of the Greek polis and its relations with other city-states; they also represent diametrically opposed concepts of the individual's relationship to the state. Despite all the rhetoric in Athens and in the European historical tradition, we should keep in mind that the Spartans believed they lived in the best of all Greek worlds, and many of their Greek neighbors agreed with them. The rivalry, then, between Sparta and Athens, which would erupt into a disastrous war for Athens, was also an ideological and cultural rivalry.

   The single, overwhelming fact of Spartan history is the Messenean War. In the eighth century BC, Sparta, like all her neighbors, was a monarchy with a limited oligarchy. In 725, however, needing land to feed a dramatically growing population, the Spartans marched over the Taygetus mountains and annexed all the territory of their neighbor, Messenia. The Messenians occupied a fertile plain and the Spartans found themselves with more than enough land to support themselves and their newly conquered people. However, like all conquered people, the Messenians did not appreciate the loss of their independence. With the help of the city-state of Argos, the Messenians revolted in 640 BC. This was no ordinary revolt, for not only did the Messenians almost win, they almost destroyed Sparta itself.

   Here's how the situation stood for Sparta at the end of the Messenian revolt. Almost defeated, controlling the territory of a subject population that outnumbered their population ten to one , it was only a matter of time before this subject population would overrun their conquerors. So the Spartans invented a new political system as dramatically revolutionary as Athenian democracy in the north: they turned their state into what amounts to a military state.

   The Messenians were turned into agricultural slaves called helots . We describe their lives as the life of a "serf," for they worked small plots of land on estates owned by Spartans; part of their produce went to the master of the estate, and the remainder went to the helot farmer and his family. There's no question that the life of the helots was a miserable life. Labor was long and hard and the helots always lived right on the border of subsistence.

   But Spartan society itself changed. The military and the city-state became the center of Spartan existence. The state determined whether children, both male and female, were strong when they were born; weakling infants were left in the hills to die of exposure. Exposing weak or sickly children was a common practice in the Greek world, but Sparta institutionalized it as a state activity rather than a domestic activity. At the age of seven, every male Spartan was sent to military and athletic school. These schools taught toughness, discipline, endurance of pain (often severe pain), and survival skills. At twenty, after thirteen years of training, the Spartan became a soldier. The Spartan soldier spent his life with his fellow soldiers; he lived in barracks and ate all his meals with his fellow soldiers. He also married, but he didn't live with his wife; one Athenian once joked that Spartans had children before they even saw the face of their wives. The marriage ceremony had an unusual ritual involved: at the end of the ceremony, the man carried his wife off as if he were taking her by force (this did not mean, however, that the status of women was bad in Sparta, as we shall see later). Only at the age of thirty, did the Spartan become an "equal," and was allowed to live in his own house with his own family—although he continued to serve in the military. Military service ended at the age of sixty. How did the soldier survive? How did Sparta afford to feed young men who did nothing but soldier in their twenties? Each soldier was granted a piece of land, which he probably never saw; this land was farmed, of course, by the helots.

   The life of a Spartan male was a life 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. And this, I think, is the key to understanding the Spartans. While the Athenians and many others thought the Spartans were insane, the life of the Spartans seemed 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, ennervation, weakness, and a decline in moral values. The Spartan, however, could point to Spartan society and argue that moral values and human courage and strength was as great as it was before civilization. Spartan society, then, exercised a profound pull on the surrounding city-states who admired the simplicity, discipline, and order of Spartan life.

   The ideology of Sparta was oriented around the state. The individual lived (and died) for the state. Their lives were designed to serve the state from their beginning to 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 the stability that had been threatened so dramatically in the Messenean revolt.

   Paradoxically, this soldier-centered state was the most liberal state in regards to the status of women. While women did not go through military training, they were required to be educated along similar lines. The Spartans were the only Greeks not only to take seriously the education of women, they instituted it as state policy. This was not, however, an academic education (just as the education of males was not an academic education); it was a physical education which could be grueling. Infant girls were also exposed to die if they were judged to be weak; they were later subject to physical and gymnastics training. This education also involved teaching women that their lives should be dedicated to the state. In most Greek states, women were required to stay indoors at all times (though only the upper classes could afford to observe this custom); Spartan women, however, were free to move about, and had an unusual amount of domestic freedom for their husbands, after all, didn't live at home.

   Spartan society was divided into three main classes. At the top was the Spartiate, or native Spartan, who could trace his or her ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. The Spartiate served in the army and was the only person who enjoyed the full political and legal rights of the state. Below the Spartiates wer the perioeci , or "dwellers around or about." These were foreign people who served as a kind of buffer population between the Spartans and the helots. Because of this vital function, they were accorded a great deal of freedom. Most of the trade and commerce carried out in Sparta were performed by the perioeci . At the bottom, of course, were the helots.

   Spartan government was an odd affair, but its overwhelming characteristic was stability . The Spartans, in fact, had the most stable government in the history of ancient Greece (some historians call this stability, "political stagnation"). At the top of government was the monarchy; the monarchy, however, was a dual monarchy. Below the monarchy was a council which was composed of the two kings plus twenty-eight nobles, all of whom were over sixty, that is, retired from the military. The council debated and set legislative and foreign policy, and was the supreme criminal court. Below the council (or above it), was an assembly of all the Spartiate males (a democracy, in other words) that selected the council and approved or vetoed council proposals. Above them all, however, was a small group of five men known as the ephorate . For all practical purposes, Spartan government was the ephorate, for these five men led the council, ran the military, ran the educational system, ran the infant selection system, and had veto power over everything coming out of the council or the assembly. They even had power to depose the king; however, they needed powerful divine proof (in the form of omens or oracles) to exercise this power. So what kind of government was Spartan government? It was a democratic timocratic monarchical oligarchy. Chew on that a few times.

   The anxiety-ridden situation with the helots led the Spartans to fear even their neighbors, who were often sticking their spoons in that pot to brew up trouble. So in the sixth century BC, the Spartans began to set their military sights on neighboring states. However, when they conquered their neighbor, Tegea, they set up a truce with them rather than annex their land and people. They demanded instead an alliance. Tegea would follow Sparta in all its foreign relationships, including wars, and would supply Sparta with a fixed amount of soldiers and equipment. In exchange, the Tegeans could remain an independent state. This was a brilliant move on the part of the Spartans. In a short time, Sparta had formed alliances with a huge number of states in the southern part of Greece (called the Peloponnesus), and had become the major power in Greece when the Persians invaded in 490 BC. Their power eclipsed that of even their powerful neighbor in the north, Athens.

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-17-96