5 - THE SPARTANS

The Spartans were something of an enigma even to their fellow Greeks. They formed the most powerful state in the Peloponnese, and later in all of Greece. Their capital Sparta was situated at the northern end of the central Laconian plain on the River Eurotas. It commanded the only land-routes into Laconia as well as the two principal valleys from Arcadia to the north and the main pass over Mount Taygetus leading to Messenia. Tradition has it that the city was founded by Lacedaemon, a son of the god Zeus. Unlike the Ionian Greeks, however, including the Athenians, the Spartans came of a different branch of the Greek stock known as Dorians, who had invaded the Peloponnese in waves about 1000 B.C., dividing into several branches, one of which pushed on south down the Eurotas valley to found their capital at the point south of the junction of the Eurotas river with the Oenus. Thus was Sparta born.

The language of these Dorians was Greek like that of the Ionians, but with some differences, including a broader accent. The nation that was to become known as Lacedaemonia or Sparta (after two place-names) settled the fertile hill-girt plain which had been described earlier by Homer as ‘hollow Lacedaemon’. Of a different temperament to the Ionians in many respects, being less lively and considerably less individualistic, they were destined to evolve a strange and austere state-system unlike that of other Greeks and, indeed, unlike almost any other that has followed in human history. Notwithstanding this, the Spartan values and disciplines were to arouse the admiration of a number of later Greek philosophers for the very reason that they were so different from the anarchy that so often prevailed in other Greek states.

The expansion of Sparta entailed securing the upper Eurotas valley, then the land to the south, and ultimately the whole of Laconia. This inevitably brought them into conflict with the ancient city of Argos whose territory had included the whole of the eastern coast of the Peloponnese and the island of Cythera. The Argives, formidable though their history was, were driven back. They were never to forgive or forget and, as their conduct would later show during the Persian invasion of Greece, they were prepared to stand aside and even come to terms with the Persians rather than fight together with, let alone under, Spartan command. By the middle of the sixth century B.C., after a series of other local wars, some fought with savage intensity, the Spartans had come to be recognised as the foremost state in all Greece and the bulwark of Hellenism.

From the very start, having conquered the native peoples of the Eurotas valley, the Spartans, unlike most other Greeks, do not seem to have intermingled with the subject people, not intermarrying, and holding themselves curiously aloof, except in their role as masters. In this very beginning lay the seeds of their future state. Some Greek writers, Herodotus among them, thought that the institutions of Sparta derived from those of the Dorian city-states to be found in Crete. Plutarch and others were also of this opinion. It seems perhaps more likely that a similarity of structure was due to common racial origins and a shared outlook.

At the head of the rigidly stratified society which evolved in Sparta there were at the top the Dorian conquerors, the ‘Spartiates’. They formed, as it were, ‘The Master-Race’. They were the only people to have the vote, and they lived in military messes in the capital. Below them came the Perioikoi or Neighbours - free men who marched and fought along with the Spartiates, but did not have voting rights. The third stratum of the society was formed by the Helots. These, who may well have been descendants of the indigenous inhabitants, worked on the farms that belonged to the Spartiates. They were not slaves in the classical sense of the word but cultivated the land and gave half their produce to the Spartiate citizens. That they were a proud, even if subject, people is shown by the fact that the Spartiates had to keep a close eye on them and be on their guard against a Helot uprising. Nevertheless many of them fought at Thermopylae and again at Plataea. Long after the campaign of Xerxes there was, indeed, a big Helot revolt (which the Spartans put down ferociously), but at the time that Greece was in such danger relations between the rulers and the ruled seem to have been basically amicable. But the threat, however veiled, was always there, and for this reason and because of the other conquered people around them the Spartans had always to keep a proportion of their army at home. They could never field all their fighting manpower.

Something else which made the Spartans an inward-looking warrior-race was that, being a land-power, they did not, like the other Greek city-states, solve population problems by sending out emigrant ships to the new-found lands of Sicily and Italy. It was true that Sparta had done so in a few cases, most noticeably Tarenturn (Taranto). But their real solution was war, as when they turned on their next-door, western neighbour of Messenia and, after two long and bitter wars, finally annexed the land and enslaved the population. This gave them a further problem: quite apart from the Helots,and the other conquered lands, they now had the hatred of the Messenians to deal with. The conclusion must be that, apart from any inborn qualities, they became a warrior-race largely because it was essential for them. (Grundy calculated that the proportion of Free to Non-Free in the Spartan state was i :i5.) To maintain a ruling class out of such a disproportionate relationship meant that the citizen of Sparta, the Spartiate, must of necessity have made himself so hard and fine a soldier that his efficiency outweighed the balance.

As the poems of Aleman {circa the mid-seventh century B.C.) reveal, there had been an earlier Sparta. It had been aristocratic, certainly, but far from the Sparta that we hear of later, and which figured so prominently in the fight against the Persians some two centuries later. Even then, it must be noted that Aleman was a foreigner, and there was only one Spartan poet of whose work a little is known and that consists of injunctions to the warrior -martial poems set to music in fact. It seems that the wars against their neighbours eliminated a Sparta which, although not much of a producer of fine pottery and artefacts, certainly imported them from other Greek states.

The famous discipline of the Spartan warrior caste was attributed to Lycurgus and the laws he impressed upon these people. Nothing is known about him as a man, and even in classical times speculation existed as to whether he was a man, a myth, ox a god. The fact remains that some two centuries or more before the Persian invasions the Spartans had adopted their iron code of rules which set them apart from all other men. For one thing, no Spartiate was permitted to own gold or silver. They were compelled to turn their back upon coinage, which was to open up all the trade throughout the East and the Mediterranean basin. No silver coins were even issued until two centuries later than the Persian wars. Such metal for transactions as was required was cast in iron spits - certainly an unwieldy commodity and, in any case, no Spartiate was allowed to engage in trade.

These same laws also forbade him from indulging in agriculture, craft, or indeed in any kind of profession - except that of arms. Many military castes over the centuries have despised the tradesman or the artisan, but none has ever carried it to the same level as Lycurgus demanded of the Spartiate. To ensure that this Master Race maintained its sound stock each child was examined shortly after birth by the Elders, the seniors of the city. They either passed it as suitably fit and strong or, if it was reckoned at all weakly, they had it exposed or thrown over a cliff. At seven or eight years of age boys were taken from their mothers and were enrolled in a group of their year. It is not clear whether at this age he still lived at home but, in any case, he now came under the discipline and control of a senior Spartiate. Similarly, at thirteen he was transferred to yet another group under similar control, but presided over by a magistrate. Their whole life was devoted to the state. (Except for this latter qualification, or the incredible harshness of their lives, it is not difficult to feel that something of the Spartan system had been ingested by the classically educated headmasters who helped form Britain’s nineteenth-century public schools.)

The boys slept in dormitories on rush-beds, rushes they had to cut without the aid of a knife - presumably on the banks of the Eurotas. Their rations were kept to the minimum, so much so that it was expected that they would steal food to supplement them but, if caught, they were severely punished. From the very beginning, it can be seen that those qualities required in a soldier - cunning, audacity and just plain ‘scrounging’ - were encouraged. As might be expected, their training was largely designed to toughen their bodies; so the military arts were taught; drill, weapon-training, and of course athletics. Other forms of education were not, however, entirely neglected and A. H. M. Jones writes in his book Sparta: ‘… there was singing of traditional songs, and no doubt Home and the Spartan poets were read’. One suspects that it was the battle-scenes of the Iliad rather than the wanderings of the wily Odysseus that engaged their attention. One aspect of education that amazed other Greeks was that, apart from the military side, girls received a very similar training. Greeks were well enough used to seeing men appearing naked in running races or wrestling, but the sight of young females doing so both amazed and disgusted them. Their own women, whether in Corinth, Athens or elsewhere, were kept very much in the tradition of the East and rarely seen outside the home.

Very few Greeks from other states knew much about everyday life in Sparta, nor indeed much about Sparta at all. The little they heard seemed to them almost incomprehensible and unattractive. Outsiders were not encouraged, in any case, and for the slightest transgression were summarily sent beyond the Spartan borders. (It is not difficult to think of modern parallels in this respect.) What little we do know about the Spartan state is very important in order to understand something of the nature of the men and the constitution that lay behind them. They were prepared to fight to the last against all their enemies: even against the apparently limitless hordes of ‘The King with half the East at heels’.

Although at a later date the constitution gradually changed it always remained conservative. H. D. F. Kitto in The Greeks has succinctly summarised it:

There were two kings - reminiscent of the two equal consuls in the Roman Republic. The origin was probably different, but the desired effect was the same: in each case the duality was a check on autocracy. At home the kings were overshadowed by the Ephors (‘Overseers’), five annual magistrates chosen more or less by ballot: but a Spartan army abroad was always commanded by one of the kings, who then had absolute powers.

Aristotle describes the kingship at Sparta as a ‘kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship’. Kitto continues: ‘There was also a Senate, and there was an Assembly, but the Assembly could not debate, and it expressed its decisions - to the amusement of other

Greeks - not by voting but by shouting: the loudest shout carried the day.’

This astonishing compendium of almost every kind of government from monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy to democracy was quite unique. Other Greeks, who were always engaged in trying out one or other system, usually with great bitterness and bloodshed, just could not understand how such a ramshackle affair could work. The fact is that it did; one reason, perhaps, why a number of Greek writers and philosophers admired these strange soldiers of the Eurotas valley. Some of their other characteristics appealed to them far less: their strict religious celebrations, as binding as their military discipline, which led them to be late for the battle of Marathon, only to send a comparative handful of men to Thermopylae. Their religious conceptions, some possibly deriving from old beliefs of the indigenous natives and others brought with them from the various invasions of centuries before, seemed strange indeed to the citizens of Athens. Some indeed were primitive and cruel. One of these was a test for manhood, in which boys had to run the gauntlet to try to steal cheeses from the altar of Artemis Orthia (a very ancient image of Artemis, possibly a wooden statue, and a far remove from the Artemis of later Greeks). As both Plutarch and Pausanias record, during this ritual some of the boys literally died from the beating they received.

When a Spartiate became eligible for one of the clubs or dining messes, at the age of twenty, he had become a fully fledged citizen-warrior. These clubs carried the same distinctions as those of later centuries, some having more kudos than others, and the equivalent to one blackball precluding entry. The food in all of them would seem to have been equally monotonous and unattractive, consisting of the ‘famous’ Spartan black broth, barley bread, a limited ration of wine (no treating), and dessert of figs or cheese. The food was cooked by Helots or slaves. It is recorded that a visiting Greek with a palate for food was once entertained at a Spartan mess and remarked afterwards: ‘Now I understand why the Spartans do not fear death.’ The two kings were each members of a mess, the only difference being that they received double rations - but only if they attended the mess. Spartan eating habits, like almost everything else, derived from the austere laws of Lycurgus which taught a contempt for pleasure. Based on the theory that the men must be prepared for war at any time and the exigencies of campaign food, they must not be allowed to grow soft or self-indulgent at any time. It is easy to scoff, as many other Greeks did, at the wintry hardness of the Spartan manner of life, but there was another effect which all this discipline produced - not only superlative warriors but excellent-mannered citizens. This began in early youth when all young men were taught to walk through the streets of the city with their eyes down-cast out of respect for any citizen they might pass on the way. The old were revered, the women respected, and the young warriors admired.

While the Greeks of other states were (not unlike the Greeks of today) immensely volatile, individualistic to the point of anarchy, and imbued with the feeling that it was every man for himself, the Spartans were famous for their ordered behaviour. A good illustration of this is given in a tale told by Plutarch. In the crowded throng at the Olympic games an old man was looking in vain for a seat from which to watch the events. His stumbling attempts to find one were noticed by many Greeks from other states, who mocked him for his age and fruitless endeavours. When, however, he came to the section where the Spartans were seated, every man among them rose to his feet and offered him their seats. Somewhat abashed, but nevertheless admiringly, the other Greeks applauded them for their behaviour. ‘Ah’, the old man is reported to have said with a sigh, ‘I see what it is - all Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it.’

Spartan marriage customs fascinated other Greeks, who knew so little about them anyway. There was even the tale that there had to be a symbolic rape and that, not until a child was conceived or even born, was the marriage considered consummated. In fact, in sexual matters, the Spartans, true to their conservative outlook in everything, seem to have had the highest rate of monogamy in all Greece. They undoubtedly had a high respect for their women and regarded them as having a greater equality than the Oriental approach to be found in Ionia, Athens, or Corinth. Also, contrary to the attitude that might have been expected among a warrior caste, homosexuality seems to have been little known - quite unlike the Thebans in northern Greece who were to make a cult among their soldiers of couples fighting side by side together, as in the famous ‘Theban Band of Lovers’. The only exception to this monogamous rule would seem to have occurred where a man was perhaps too old or otherwise incapable of fathering children. In this case a woman was permitted to have sexual relations with a man chosen by her husband and, if children ensued, they probably took the husband’s name. In general, the young women, receiving much the same education as the youths, probably shared a life with their men far closer than did those of Athens.

Despite the fact that all Spartiates were supposed to be equals there can be no doubt that, although they received the same training and lived and fought together, some were, in Orwell’s words, ‘more equal than others’. Some had big farms and an equivalent amount of Helots to work them, some much smaller farms, and others had hardly enough money to pay their mess bills. From early days an attempt had been made to equalise the size of properties, but it was in the nature of man that lands should pass by bequest or gift and some landowners in the period after the Persian wars became extremely rich. A. H. M. Jones has the following comment upon the subject in Sparta: ‘The common education, however, and the common meals produced a genuine equality, and poor and obscure Spartiates could readily rise by merit. Lysander of noble - indeed Heraclid blood - descent, but too poor to pay his own school fees, rose to be the leader of the Spartan state… .’ On the other hand, through sickness or other deprivation, some Spartiates inevitably reached the point where they could no longer pay their way and relapsed into the position of ‘noncitizens’. The exclusive nature required of being a pure Spartiate meant that, although there were probably 8000 Spartiate adult males at the time of Xerxes’ invasion, within about one hundred years, in the time of Aristotle, they had sunk to 1000.

Despite this decline, the Spartans still excited the admiration of Xenophon, who was also writing at some distance in time from the same events. In his somewhat incomplete account, which does not tell us as much as we would like to know, it is nevertheless evident that he found a society that was little changed since the time of Leonidas. He comments upon the difference between the education of the Spartan youth and the youth of other Greek states:

In the other Greek states parents who want to give their sons the best education place them under the care and control of a moral tutor as soon as they are old enough to learn. They send them to a school to learn letters, music, and the exercise of the wrestling ground. Moreover, they soften the children’s feet by giving them sandals, and pamper their bodies with changes of clothing. It is also customary to allow them to eat as much food as they can.

Xenophon then goes on to describe the training of the Spartan youth which, as has been seen, was the complete reverse side of the coin. However, some were able to see both sides and an anecdote about Diogenes, the great Cynic philosopher, living some seventy years after the invasion of Xerxes, illustrates this. On one occasion at Olympia he was asked what he thought of some extravagantly dressed young men who were passing by, and replied: ‘Mere affectation!’ A little later, his attention being drawn to some young Spartans in their torn and threadbare garments, he snorted: ‘More affectation!’ Yet Diogenes’ own outlook on life, one suspects, was more akin to that of the Spartans than to that of the well-dressed pleasure-lovers.

Some thirty-six years after the death of Leonidas, King Agesilaus of Sparta, as Plutarch recounts, showed that the essential Spartan spirit, which distinguished her citizens from all others in Greece, still had not changed. At that time there was a war between a coalition led by Athens against Sparta and her allies. The latter had been complaining to Agesilaus that it was they who provided the bulk of the army. Agesilaus, accordingly, called a council meeting at which all the Spartan allies sat down on one side and the Spartans on the other. The king then told a herald to proclaim that all the potters among the allies and the Spartans should stand up. After this the herald called on the blacksmiths, the masons, and the carpenters to do likewise; and so he went on through all the crafts and trades. By the end of the herald’s recital almost every single man among the allies had risen to his feet. But not a Spartan had moved. The laws of Lycurgus still obtained. The king laughed and turned to his allies, remarking: ‘You see, my friends, how many more soldiers we send out than you do.’

The whole Spartan attitude is contained in those words.

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