Ancient History & Civilisation

5. The Spartan Code

To train men to an ideal so unwelcome to the flesh it was necessary to take them at birth and form them by the most rigorous discipline. The first step was a ruthless eugenics: not only must every child face the father’s right to infanticide, but it must also be brought before a state council of inspectors; and any child that appeared defective was thrown from a cliff of Mt. Taygetus, to die on the jagged rocks below.47 A further elimination probably resulted from the Spartan habit of inuring their infants to discomfort and exposure.48 Men and women were warned to consider the health and character of those whom they thought of marrying; even a king, Archidamus, was fined for marrying a diminutive wife.49 Husbands were encouraged to lend their wives to exceptional men, so that fine children might be multiplied; husbands disabled by age or illness were expected to invite young men to help them breed a vigorous family. Lycurgus, says Plutarch, ridiculed jealousy and sexual monopoly, and called it “absurd that people should be so solicitous for their dogs and horses as to exert interest and pay money to procure fine breeding, and yet keep their wives shut up, to be made mothers only by themselves, who might be foolish, infirm, or diseased.” In the general opinion of antiquity the Spartan males were stronger and handsomer, their women healthier and lovelier, than the other Greeks.50

Probably more of this result was due to training than to eugenic birth. Thucydides makes King Archidamus say: “There is little difference” (at birth, presumably) “between man and man, but the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.”51 At the age of seven the Spartan boy was taken from his family and brought up by the state; he was enrolled in what was at once a military regiment and a scholastic class, under a paidonomos, or manager of boys. In each class the ablest and bravest boy was made captain; the rest were instructed to obey him, to submit to the punishments he might impose upon them, and to strive to match or better him in achievement and discipline. The aim was not, as at Athens, athletic form and skill, but martial courage and worth. Games were played in the nude, under the eyes of elders and lovers of either sex. The older men made it their concern to provoke quarrels among the boys, individually and in groups, so that vigor and fortitude might be tested and trained; and any moment of cowardice brought many days of disgrace. To bear pain, hardship, and misfortune silently was required of all. Every year, at the altar of Artemis Orthia, some chosen youths were scourged till their blood stained the stones.52 At twelve the boy was deprived of underclothing, and was allowed but one garment throughout the year. He did not bathe frequently, like the lads of Athens, for water and unguents made the body soft, while cold air and clean soil made it hard and resistant. Winter and summer he slept in the open, on a bed of rushes broken from the Eurotas’ banks. Until he was thirty he lived with his company in barracks, and knew none of the comforts of home.

He was taught reading and writing, but barely enough to make him literate; books found few buyers in Sparta,53 and it was easy to keep up with the publishers. Lycurgus, said Plutarch, wished children to learn his laws not by writing but by oral transmission and youthful practice under careful guidance and example; it was safer, he thought, to make men good by unconscious habituation than to rely upon theoretical persuasion; a proper education would be the best government. But such education would have to be moral rather than mental; character was more important than intellect. The young Spartan was trained to sobriety, and some Helots were compelled to drink to excess in order that the youth might see how foolish drunkenness can be.54 He was taught, in preparation for war, to forage in the fields and find his own food, or starve; to steal in such cases was permissible, but to be detected was a crime punishable by flogging.55 If he behaved well he was allowed to attend the public mess of the citizens, and was expected to listen carefully there so that he might become acquainted with the problems of the state, and learn the art of genial conversation. At the age of thirty, if he had survived with honor the hardships of youth, he was admitted to the full rights and responsibilities of a citizen, and sat down to dine with his elders.

The girl, though left to be brought up at home, was also subject to regulation by the state. She was to engage in vigorous games—running, wrestling, throwing the quoit, casting the dart—in order that she might become strong and healthy for easy and perfect motherhood. She should go naked in public dances and processions, even in the presence of young men, so that she might be stimulated to proper care of her body, and her defects might be discovered and removed. “Nor was there anything shameful in the nakedness of the young women,” says the highly moral Plutarch; “modesty attended them, and all wantonness was excluded.” While they danced they sang songs of praise for those that had been brave in war, and heaped contumely upon those that had given way. Mental education was not wasted upon the Spartan girl.

As to love, the young man was permitted to indulge in it without prejudice of gender. Nearly every lad had a lover among the older men; from this lover he expected further education, and in return he offered affection and obedience. Often this exchange grew into a passionate friendship that stimulated both youth and man to bravery in war.56 Young men were allowed considerable freedom before marriage, so that prostitution was rare, and hetairai here found no encouragement.57 In all of Lacedaemon we hear of only one temple to Aphrodite, and there the goddess was represented as veiled, armed with a sword, and bearing fetters on her feet, as if to symbolize the foolishness of marrying for love, the subordination of love to war, and the strict control of marriage by the state.

The state specified the best age of marriage as thirty for men and twenty for women. Celibacy in Sparta was a crime; bachelors were excluded from the franchise, and from the sight-of public processions in which young men and women danced in the nude. According to Plutarch the bachelors themselves were compelled to march in public, naked even in winter, singing a song to the effect that they were justly suffering this punishment for having disobeyed the laws. Persistent avoiders of marriage might be set upon at any time in the streets by groups of women, and be severely handled. Those who married and had no children were only less completely disgraced; and it was understood that men who were not fathers were not entitled to the respect that the youth of Sparta religiously paid to their elders.58

Marriages were usually arranged by the parents, without purchase; but after this agreement the bridegroom was expected to carry off the bride by force, and she was expected to resist; the word for marriage was harpadzein, to seize.59 If such arrangements left some adults still unmarried, several men might be pushed into a dark room with an equal number of girls, and be left to pick their life mates in the darkness;60 the Spartans thought that such choosing would not be blinder than love. It was usual for the bride to stay with her parents for a while; the bridegroom remained in his barracks, and visited his wife only clandestinely; “in this relation,” says Plutarch, “they lived a long time, insomuch that they sometimes had children by their wives before even they saw their faces by daylight.” When they were ready for parentage custom allowed them to set up a home. Love came after marriage rather than before, and marital affection appears to have been as strong in Sparta as in any other civilization.61 The Spartans boasted that there was no adultery among them, and they may have been right, for there was much freedom before marriage, and many husbands could be persuaded to share their wives, especially with brothers.62 Divorce was rare. The Spartan general Lysander was punished because he left his wife and wished to marry a prettier one.63

All in all, the position of woman was better in Sparta than in any other Greek community. There more than elsewhere she preserved her high Homeric status, and the privileges that survived from an early matrilinear society. Spartan women, says Plutarch,64“were bold and masculine, overbearing to their husbands . . . and speaking openly even on the most important subjects.” They could inherit and bequeath property; and in the course of time—so great was their influence over men—nearly half the real wealth of Sparta was in their hands.65 They lived a life of luxury and liberty at home while the men bore the brunt of frequent war, or dined on simple fare in the public mess.

For every Spartan male, by a characteristic ordinance of the constitution, was required from his thirtieth to his sixtieth year to eat his main meal daily in a public dining hall, where the food was simple in quality and slightly but deliberately inadequate in amount. In this way, says Plutarch,the legislator thought to harden them to the privations of war, and to keep them from the degeneration of peace; they “should not spend their lives at home, laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up to the hands of their tradesmen and cooks, to fatten them in corners like greedy brutes, and to ruin not their minds only but their very bodies, which, enfeebled by indulgence and excess, would stand in need of long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick.”66 To supply the food for this public meal each citizen was required to contribute to his dining club, periodically, stated quantities of corn and other provisions; if he failed in this his citizenship was forfeited.

Normally, in the earlier centuries of the code, the simplicity and asceticism to which Spartan youth was trained persisted into later years. Fat men were a rarity in Lacedaemon; there was no law regulating the size of the stomach, but if a man’s belly swelled indecently he might be publicly reproved by the government, or banished from Laconia.67 There was little of the drinking and the revelry that flourished in Athens. Differences of wealth were real, but hidden; rich and poor wore the same simple dress—a woolen peplos, or shirt, that hung straight from the shoulders without pretense to beauty or form. The accumulation of movable riches was difficult; to lay up a hundred dollars’ worth of iron currency required a large closet, and to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen.68 Human greed remained, however, and found an outlet in official corruption. Senators, ephors, envoys, generals, and kings were alike purchasable, at prices befitting their dignity.69 When an ambassador from Samos displayed his gold plate at Sparta, King Cleomenes I had him recalled lest the citizens be spoiled by alien example.70

The Spartan system, fearful of such contamination, was inhospitable beyond precedent. Foreigners were rarely welcomed. Usually they were made to understand that their visits must be brief; if they stayed too long they were escorted to the frontier by the police. The Spartans themselves were forbidden to go abroad without permission of the government, and to dull their curiosity they were trained to a haughty exclusiveness that would not dream that other nations could teach them anything.71 The system had to be ungracious in order to protect itself; a breath from that excluded world of freedom, luxury, letters, and arts might topple over this strange and artificial society, in which two thirds of the people were serfs, and all the masters were slaves.

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