Articles on History Matters:
Sparta - It's Culture and Society
Sparta was, above all, a militarist state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, the mother of the child bathed it in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the elders of the tribe by the child's father. The elders then decided whether it was to be reared or not. If found defective or weak, the baby was left on the wild slopes of Mt Taygetos. In this way the Spartans attempted the maintenance of high physical standards in their population. From the earliest days of the Spartan citizen, the claim on his life by the state was absolute and strictly enforced.
It was customary in Sparta that before the males would go off to war, their wives or another female of some significance would present them with their shield and say: "he tan, he epi tas" (? t?? ? ?p? t??), which translates to "With this, or upon this." The idea was that a Spartan could only return to Sparta in one of two ways: victorious or dead. If a Spartan hoplite were to return to Sparta alive and without his shield, it was assumed that he threw his shield at the enemy in an effort to flee; an act punishable by death or banishment. It is interesting to note that a soldier losing his helm, breastplate or greaves (leg armor) was not similarly punished, as these items were personal pieces of armor designed to protect one soldier. However the shield not only protected the individual soldier but in the tightly packed Spartan Phalanx was also instrumental in protecting the soldier to his left from harm. Thus the shield was symbolic of the individual soldier's subordination to his unit, his integral part in its success, and his solemn responsibility to his comrades in arms - messmates and friends, often close blood relations. It could not be lost.
Burials in Sparta were also considered an act of honour, and marked headstones would only be granted to Spartan soldiers who died in combat during a victorious campaign (or females who died in service of a divine office or in childbirth).
A strong emphasis was placed on honour and carrying out acts because it was the 'right thing to do.' Xenophon wrote about the Spartans as he observed them during an Olympic game:
"An elderly man was trying to find a place to sit and observe the Olympic Games, as he went to each section. All the other Greeks laughed as he tried to make his way through. Some ignored him. Upon entering the Spartan section all the Spartans stood and offered the elderly man their seats. Suddenly the entire stadium applauded. All the Greeks knew what was the right thing to do, but the Spartans were the only ones who did it."
Spartan boys left home for military boarding school at the age of 7 and were required to serve in the army until age thirty. Then they passed into the active reserve, where they remained until the age of sixty. Spartan education from the ages of seven to thirty emphasised physical toughness, steadfastness in military ranks, and absolute obedience to orders. The ordinary Spartan was a citizen-warrior, or hoplite, trained to obey and endure; he became a politician only if chosen as ephor for a single year. He could be elected a life member of the council after his sixtieth year, in which he would be free from military service. Men could marry at the age of twenty but could not live with their families until they left their active military service at age thirty. The Spartans perfected the craft of hoplite warfare. They called themselves "homoioi" (similars), pointing to their common lifestyle and the discipline of the phalanx, which demanded that no soldier be superior to his comrades.
If male babies born in Sparta were too small, weak or sick (all of which were believed as early signs that they would not be suitable for military life), they were abandoned on the slopes of Mt. Taygetos to die. Also known as Apothetae or Place Of Rejection. The Spartans began military training about the age of 7, where they would enter the agoge system for the education and training—everything from physical training such as hunting and dancing, to emotional and spiritual training. At that age they would have to go through what was known as the gauntlet. They would have to run around a group of older children, who would flog them continually with whips, sometimes to death. As they were lightly clothed, and had no bedding to speak of, children would often put thistles in their pallet because the prickling sensation made them feel warmer. On leaving the agoge they would be sorted into groups, whereupon some sent into the countryside with nothing, though some believe they had knives), and forced to survive on their skills and cunning; this was called the Krypteia, believed to be an initiation rite to seek out and kill Helots who were considered to be troublesome to the state, or were found to be wandering the countryside with no good reason.
At the age of twenty, the Spartan began his membership in one of the syssitia (dining messes or clubs), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. The Spartan exercised the full rights and duties of a citizen at the age of thirty. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens, and needed to undergo the training as prescribed by law, and participation in and contribution to one of the dining-clubs. Those who fulfilled these conditions were considered "peers," (homoioi) citizens in the fullest sense of the word, while those who failed were called "lesser citizens," and retained only the civil rights of citizenship.
Spartans were absolutely debarred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the perioeci , and were forbidden (in theory) to possess either gold or silver. Spartan currency consisted of bars of iron, thus making thievery and foreign commerce very difficult and discouraging the accumulation of riches. Wealth was, in theory at least, derived entirely from landed property, and consisted in the annual return made by the Helots, who cultivated the plots of ground allotted to the Spartans. But this attempt to equalize property proved a failure: from the earliest times, there were marked differences of wealth within the state, and these became even more serious after the law of Epitadeus, passed at some time after the Peloponnesian War, removed the legal prohibition of the gift or bequest of land. Helots were ruthlessly controlled, primarily through the secret police or Krypteia.
Full citizens, released from any economic activity, were given a piece of land (kleros), which was cultivated and run by the Helots. As time went on, greater portions of land were concentrated in the hands of large landholders, but the number of full citizens declined. Citizens had numbered 10,000 at the beginning of the 5th century BC, but had decreased by Aristotle's day (384–322BC) to less than 1,000, and had further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV in 244 BC. Attempts were made to remedy this situation by creating new laws. Certain penalties were imposed upon those who remained unmarried or who married too late in life. These laws, however, came too late and were ineffective in reversing the trend.
Perhaps the most widely known event on the efficiency of the Spartan war-machine is related to the Persian Wars. The Spartan stand at the Battle of Thermopylae has been repeatedly cited in a military Grand strategy context as a role model on the advantages of training, strategy and bravery against extremely overwhelming odds. The 2007 film 300 is a loose adaptation of this famous battle.
Spartan women enjoyed a status, power and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. It is estimated that women were the sole owners of at least 40% of all land and property in Sparta. The laws regarding a divorce were the same for both men and women. Spartan women received as much education as men, as well as a substantial amount of physical education and gymnastic training. They rarely got married before the age of 20, and unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased.
Women, being more independent than in other Greek societies, were able to negotiate with their husbands to bring their lovers into their homes. According to Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus, men both allowed and encouraged their wives to bear the children of other men, due to the general communal ethos which made it more important to bear many progeny for the good of the city, than to be jealously concerned with one's own family unit. However, some historians argue that this 'wife sharing' was only reserved for elder males who had not yet produced an heir. For this reason, Plutarch claims that the concept of "adultery" was alien to the Spartans, and relates that one ancient Spartan had said that it was as possible to find a bull with a neck long enough to stand on a mountain top and drink from a river below, as to find an adulterer in Sparta. A modern view holds that bisexual relations were commonplace among Spartan women, and it was considered acceptable for married women to have affairs with unmarried girls in their prime.
Until the age of seven, boys were educated at home and were taught to fight their fears as well as general superstition by their nurses, who were prized in Greece. Their official training was then undertaken by the state in the agoge system and supervised by the paidonomos, an official appointed for that purpose. This training consisted for the most part in physical exercises, such as dancing, gymnastics, and ball-games.The Dorians were the first to practice nudity in athletics, as well as oiling the body during exercise to enhance its beauty, a costly practice which broke with the customary frugality of the Spartans. According to Plato this practice was introduced from Crete to Sparta, and then to the rest of Greece.
Training in music and literature occupied a subordinate position. The tireless emphasis on physical training gave Spartans the reputation for being “laconic”, economical with words, a word derived from the name of their homeland of Laconia. Education was also extended to girls, in the belief that strong and intelligent mothers would produce strong and intelligent children. Thus modern day historians, with the corroboration of ancient writers, tend to conclude that Spartan women were among the most educated in the ancient Greek world. Both sexes exercised nude and because of this a strong emphasis was placed on the physical fitness of men as well as women. Despite their physical fitness, women could not compete in the Olympic Games, according to the Olympic rules (they competed in the Heraea Games instead). However, there were a number of Spartan princesses who led female troops. There were also contests to see who could take the most severe flogging, an ordeal known as diamastigosis.
Between leaving the agoge and joining a syssitia a select few young men were arranged into groups, and were sent off into the countryside with nothing, and were expected to survive on wits and cunning. It was assumed that they would steal their food, yet anyone caught stealing was severely punished. Many speculate that this was to teach the young Spartans stealth and quickness. If you were caught it was concluded that you were not quick enough or silent enough. This was called the Crypteia, secret (ritual). This was very probably, in origin, an old initiation rite, a preparation for their later career as elite soldiers. Other sources claim that the Crypteia (or Krypteia) was an "adolescent death squad" made up of the most promising young Spartans. Their job was to roam the countryside killing Helots at night in order to instill fear in the slave population and prevent rebellion.
Poor knowledge on Spartan traditions is the result of Sparta's secrecy. Most modern theories are based on assumptions derived from ancient sources and parallels drawn between Sparta and contemporary Dorian Greek societies such as Crete. Some scholars assume that the custom of pederasty paralleled the mentoring relations between Spartan males and adolescent boys, common in Dorian societies. Some of the ancient scholars seem to have supported an opposing view: Xenophon writes that Lycurgus efficiently managed to cultivate chaste pederasty in the Spartan society. This however tends to be viewed as an attempt of praise towards Sparta, and not necessarily as a sincere remark. Aristotle also wrote that Sparta belonged to the type of military society that was based on heterosexual relationship, unlike other Greek states of his time. However, an examination of the historical details reveals that "references to particular homosexual attachments of Spartans are conspicuous even by Greek standards". Cicero furthermore asserts that, "The Lacedaemonians, while they permit all things except outrage (hubris, referring here to homosexual coitus) in the love of youths, certainly distinguish the forbidden by a thin wall of partition from the sanctioned, for they allow embraces and a common couch to lovers.' In antiquity it was thought that a youth was expected to find himself an older lover, and that pederasty, a social practice common throughout most of Greece, was especially so in Sparta, where the ephors fined any eligible man who did not have chaste relationships with youths.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
19 Apr 2007
Copyright © 2006 - 2007 Tons Of Matters.com. All rights reserved.
Tons of Matters.com
If you matter, then we matter!