Ancient History & Civilisation

Section Four

Life and Society in Sparta

  It is clear from the preceding history that Sparta was far from an ordinary society in the context of the ancient Greek world. Indeed, its differences would not only give it its incredible military power, but would also set it at odds with many of the other city-states of Greece. Because of this incredible uniqueness of Spartan society which so greatly set it apart from the other city-states that surrounded it, it is necessary for any short history to be considered complete that a section be dedicated to the idiosyncrasies of life in Sparta.

  The first event of the life of a Spartan was, itself, a test of strength. Children who were weak or sick, it was thought, would not be of benefit to the highly militaristic society. Newborns would be inspected by elder Spartan citizens and, if judged to be too weak to participate in Spartan society, would be left exposed in the wilderness to die. Such was the zeal of the Spartans for strength that even the newly born were not exempt from the requirement of being strong enough to contribute to the power of Sparta. From birth to death, the state was an integral part of the arc that a Spartan's life would take.

  Though both males and females would undergo the testing at birth, the males would lead a more regimented life, as it was they that would go on to become the highly-trained and skilled warriors that Sparta needed to maintain its military might. From birth until seven years of age, young Spartans would remain at home with their families. Upon turning seven, however, Spartan boys would be transplanted from their homes into the military training schools known as agoge. For a Spartan boy or man, the agoge was a part of life so important that understatement of this importance borders on the impossible, as it was here that the Spartan boy would pass into manhood and also where he would live until the age of 30.

  Life in the agoge was strict and disciplined, meant to sharpen boys into some of the best soldiers that history has ever produced. From seven until the age of twelve, the boys would live in a perpetual state of training. Far from being nothing more than a place of physical training, this early stage of the agoge was meant to teach the boys to survive and to think as soldiers. Rations were sparse, intentionally so to encourage the boys to steal extra food. If they were caught, however, the punishments would be severe indeed. By the age of twelve, the boys would have been taught to survive the harshest of physical conditions, often on little nourishment, and to use what could be found around them to survive.

  At twelve, the boys would enter into a close relationship with an older soldier of the agoge. In many places in Greece, it is well known that such relationships would become ritualistically sexual in nature as a method of promoting closeness between teacher and student. In Sparta, however, this is unlikely to have been the case. Xenophon, whose knowledge of the Spartans would have been extensive as a contemporary Greek military figure, notes that this type of physical relationship was not pursued by the Spartans, the close teacher-student relationship instead being achieved through very close and likely very personal friendship that would also translate into personal loyalty in battle. Regardless of the exact nature of this relationship, it was a key part of the way in which military and other lessons were passed down during this ruthless period of military training.

  At 18, Spartan youths attained the position of reservists in the Spartan army, a rite of passage in the development of any young Spartan man. At 20, their status as soldiers became full-fledged, and as such they were permitted full membership in one of the many mess halls where the men of Sparta all took their meals. In order to gain entry into these messes, a unanimous vote in favor of the new candidate was required the current members. While it may seem like a matter of little consequence to the modern mind, membership in one of these halls, known to the Spartans as syssitia, was of the utmost importance. Not only was one's mess hall a mark of acceptance in the society and social status, it was also a requirement for full Spartan citizenship, which was right earned, and not bestowed at birth. Throughout the next 10 years of their lives, Spartan men would continue to live in the agoge, until becoming eligible for citizenship at 30, provided they had been accepted into a syssitia. Once full citizens, the Spartan men were entitled to one of the equal land grants of Sparta, which they could work as they saw fit. They could also, at this time, take a wife and begin a family. However, the influence of the Spartan military life would not stop here. Spartan men could be recalled for military service until the age of 60.

  While many of the men of Sparta followed this path and could even be promoted to membership in the king's hippeis if their military prowess proved sufficient, there was another military path open to the young men in the agoge. Those who were particularly gifted would be trained as members of the Crypteia, a type of stealth force. Every autumn, war would be declared against the Helots of Sparta, and the young men selected for the Crypteia would move secretly through the Helot population, allowed to kill at will until the ritual “war” was over. This tradition served the dual purpose of allowing Sparta's best soldiers to practice their stealth warfare and keeping the Helot population, a constant threat to the power structure of Sparta, under tight control.

  Once a full citizen of 30 or older, a Spartan man was granted a vote in the Apella, or citizen's assembly. This body would elect the five Ephors, executive and judicial representatives who could check the power of the kings, annually, and would also vote on motions put forward by its members. After the age of 60, when men were no longer called upon to fight, they could join the ranks of the Gerousia, or council of elders, which was also elected by the assembly. Established by the laws of Lycurgus, the Gerousiawas a 30 member body of 28 elders elected for life and the two kings themselves. The Gerousia was the higher house of the Spartan legislature, able to veto any decision of the Apella at will. These institutions, combined with the dual Spartan kingship, helped to share the power of Sparta among its citizens and ensure that absolute monarchy was impossible. The two legislative bodies also played an important role in Sparta's military history, as it was they who could order the army to march or recall it at any time, though the Ephorscould also exert their influence over the military decisions of Sparta.

  Unlike many other Greek city-states, females were also educated in Sparta. Though not as militaristic as their male counterparts, Spartan girls would undergo physically intensive education and be encouraged to participate in sports and strenuous activity. They would also be taught at least some basic elements of the militaristic values of Sparta, as it would be up to them as mothers to instill these values in their male children during the first seven years of life before they would go to the agoge. Spartan women occupied a unique role in the ancient world. While they could not achieve full citizenship, they were strongly encouraged to voice their opinions on matters of state and to participate in Spartan life in ways that women in almost no other part of the ancient world were. This is, again, an example of the bizarre dual nature of Sparta: one in which the state was ever-present and involved in every aspect of daily life, but in which the society was in some ways freer than its democratic counterparts.

  Despite this certain attitude of equality, however, the class into which one was born in Sparta was of the greatest importance. There were three main classes of people in Sparta: the Spartiates, or full citizens, the Perioeci, non-citizens who were fully free within the Spartan social structure but could not participate in government in the way that the Spartiates did, and Helots, the enslaved populace that was used mostly for labor in the Spartan economy. A pseudo-fourth class, the Mothakes, also existed in the class structure of Sparta. Mothakes could be either the offspring of Spartiate and Helot couples or simply the children of extremely poor Spartiate families. Though it is difficult to determine with certainty, it seems likely that the Mothakes were on roughly equal social footing with the Perioeci, above the Helots and below the Spartiates. Unlike their Perioeci counterparts, however, the Mothakes seem to have had a degree of social mobility due to their partially Spartiate background. One prominent example of this is Lysander, who himself was born a Mothax.

  Sparta's societal austerity has become so well-known in the Western world that the very word “Spartan” itself is taken to mean self-denying and simplistic. This was likely no exaggeration of history, but a reflection of the real values to which the citizens of Sparta adhered. Elaborate architecture, the arts, and even writing itself (in a literary or historical sense) were frowned upon by Spartan society and eschewed in favor of more practical and utilitarian pursuits. This, too, was a part of the ultimate devotion of Sparta to its militaristic identity. Spartan citizens were born, lived and died for the power and glory of the state and the Spartan army, and no benefit was to be had from the pursuit of beauty for its own sake or certainly as a vain pursuit. In this sense, Sparta was the polar opposite of Athens, the city that produced great works of art, music, literature and architecture.

  Contrary to popular belief, however, Sparta was not without its own rich intellectual heritage, in a sense. Political philosophy, as exemplified by Lycurgus and his systematic reforms, was widely viewed as a positive art in Sparta. Similarly, poetry and music were acceptable, so long as they were used to impart the martial virtues that were so cherished in Sparta. In the agoge and in the education of Spartan girls, literacy is thought to have been widely taught. These arts were still expected to conform to the overarching dominance of the Spartan state. However, the modern concept of Sparta as a society which did not value intellect and learning in its citizenry is simply not grounded in historical reality.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!