The weirdness that was Sparta

It would need a book, probably in three volumes, to even begin to do justice to Sparta. The place was like nowhere else we know of, before or since. Spartan life was so removed from our modern experience, that it would almost be reasonable to say that while Athens strove to become us, Sparta was determined to be the exact opposite. It's no wonder the Athenians and the Spartans could never trust each other.

I won't try and write a book; instead I'll point out a few of the weirder parts of Spartan life:

Sparta had two kings, running in two ancient lineages. Presumably this was a carryover from when the city formed from multiple tribes. It did mean that a new, inexperienced king could be balanced by one with more experience. It also meant a certain amount of argument!

Each newborn baby boy was taken by his father to a committee, which decided whether the child was fit to live. If not, then the baby was exposed to die, by order of the state committee. But if, much more usually, he was fit to live, then the baby was allocated on the spot a plot of farmland which was his for life: his source of income and support. The plot came with helots to work the land; all the owner had to do was eat the produce. When a man died, his farm was returned to the state for allocation to the next baby that came along. It's hard to know what to call this by modern standards. Fascism? Communism? Beats me.

There was only one profession for a Spartan: to be a soldier. The other two classes were the helots—who were slaves—and a small band of free non-citizens called the periocoi.

Helots were a once-free people who were made slaves by the Spartans. The helots rose up on a semi-regular basis. Which is why the Spartans were dedicated soldiers: not to fight wars but to keep the helots in line.

Helots were not slaves in the normal sense that they could be bought and sold at will. They were tied to the land. In some ways they were more like serfs than slaves.

There was a rite of passage for young Spartans called the krypteia, in which the young men were sent alone into the countryside, with only a dagger, and orders to survive without being caught. Oh, and each young man was to kill a few helots. For practice, you know. It was a way of getting the young men used to killing before they had to do it much more dangerously in combat, and it seems as if helot troublemakers were particularly targeted, thus killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.

When a man came of age he was allocated to a mess, which also formed his fighting unit. He stayed in that mess for life.

Spartan women, surprisingly, were the most free of any of the Greeks. The theory went you needed women in good condition to produce strong children.

There was a council of elders, called the gerousia. Membership by invitation only, and you had to be 60 years or older (gerousia...geriatric). Any Spartan who lived to 60, considering the battles, had to be one tough guy.

5 ephors were selected each year from amongst the Spartiates. The ephors held veto power. Whenever a king left Sparta, 2 ephors would accompany him. Any 2 ephors together ccould overrule a king. All 5 ephors could overrule both kings. Ephors were rather powerful.

The first action of the newly elected ephors each year was to declare war on their own helots. So it was legal to kill them without fear of blood guilt, you know.

It was illegal to have a funeral stone unless you died in battle.

For a Spartan to surrender was the greatest shame. In fact to fail to die in battle with your comrades was pretty bad too. There was a man sent off on an embassy by King Leonidas, right before the last stand at Thermopylae. When this man discovered that he'd failed to be slaughtered along with his friends, he was so ashamed he hung himself. A small force of Spartans surrendered to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. All of Greece was shocked.

Sparta was structured like four connected villages, each with its own agora. It probably means Sparta coalesced in prehistoric times from four tribes. Unlike every other important city in Greece, Sparta had no defensive walls. The Spartans took the view that anyone who thought they could beat them was welcome to come on in and try.

The Spartans were totally convinced this new-fangled money stuff would never catch on. Instead, they used small iron bars for the few times currency was needed in their lives. Even a couple of hundred years after coinage was invented, the Spartans were still resisting.

The Spartans did from time to time hold general votes. How they voted was this: some men were sent outside the assembly hall. The Aye voters and the Noe voters then shouted as loud as they could, one group after the other. Whichever side shouted loudest won the debate, as decided by the listeners outside.

They called themselves Lacedaemonians, from Lacedaemonia. Try saying that ten times fast. Which is why you typically see the letter lambda on their shields.

Spartans were sometimes referred to amongst other Greeks as "crickets", because they were always ready for a sing-song and communal dancing.

The Spartans were renowned as a people of few words. Our modern term laconic comes direct from Lacedaemon. So the next time you describe someone as laconic, you're accusing them of being like a Spartan.

I could go on forever, but I'll stop there. If people read of a place like this in an epic fantasy, they'd say it was over the top.

33 comments:

Sherri said...

Fascinating, Gary! I always enjoy these history lessons. I especially love the Spartans' voting method.

I'm curious to know what happened to the women and children when a man died and his land reverted to the state.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sherri!

Women were expected to remarry ASAP. (Even King Leonidas' last words to his queen were to marry again and have children.) I don't know what happened to single mothers who for whatever reason couldn't find a husband, but I doubt it was a problem. The whole thing was very much communal support. The Spartans looked after their own.

Boy children had their own inherent support of course. Girls went with the Mums.

L. T. Host said...

I find all the Ancient Greeks fascinating, but the Spartans especially so. They were so different from everyone else in that time. It's kind of neat to see an example of a pure military society, but with the sense of community, too.

Thanks again for the neat read... I love learning stuff like this!

Kosmos said...

Thanks so much for posting this :) Very interesting.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Sparta is totally interesting simply because it is so foreign. Of course, as a woman I would have preferred to live in Sparta than anywhere else in Greece. The only caveat to that is the whole decide-whether-the-baby-could-live. I wouldn't be too thrilled to carry a baby for nine months and then have a bunch of men order it tossed out to die.

AvenSarah said...

Just here to make a small caveat, again (I'm so annoying, even to myself -- but I just can't resist!). There's no question that Sparta was drastically different than other city-states in Greece, but the extent to which the ideal Lycurgan constitution (which you describe) ever actually existed/was enforced is highly debatable; we only have external sources (though some quite well-informed, like Xenophon), and they were usually most concerned with highlighting the differences between Athens and Sparta, in order to criticize Athens. And so they idealized, and perhaps (probably?) exaggerated Spartan life, in particular the communal & "subjugate-everything-to-the-welfare-of-the-state" aspects. We know, for instance, that the "no private property" rule seems to have been continually under strain, since there were multiple attempts to reform, and complaints that land was being concentrated in the hands of the women by the end of the 5th century, which shouldn't have been possible with state ownership.

Also, while I can see the attraction of life in Sparta as a woman (over other Greek cities) there are definite drawbacks; not just having your children potentially killed, but also losing them to state training at 7 years old (the boys, maybe the girls, though probably they stayed living at home) and the expectation that you should rejoice when your male relatives died in battle, and only mourn them (and shun them) when they survived. (Assuming, as I've just said we shouldn't, that the stories about Sparta were all true!)

Whatever the exact truth was, of course, it's undeniable that the Spartans trained their whole lives to be warriors, and that it worked, because they truly were an almost unstoppable fighting force in the 5th century, before depopulation dragged them down in the 4th.

As always, Gary, thanks for the post, and the opportunity to comment on it!

Lexi said...

How very interesting. Difficult to imagine the Spartans had much sense of humour...

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Sounds like feudalism, without the hereditary component, and with extra gore.

Truly strange indeed! I see why you love ancient peoples. :)

Carrie said...

Love your posts Gary. Thank you for taking the time to accentuate our wait for that book. ;)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie. Yep. I'm torn between writing Book 3, writing blog posts, never getting time to write short stories, organizing the book tour, failing to finish filling out the dreaded Author Questionnaire which I really have to get done (more on that in a later post), and dealing with Real Life.

Yes, I know. We should all be so lucky to have problems like that...I am most emphatically not complaining. I'm having the time of my life!

Gary Corby said...

Susan, you're right, it is a bit feudal. No castles though, and not much aristocracy. Spartan society was surprisingly level among the citizens.

I mentioned in my guest post at the Alliterati that one of the reasons I love writing ancient historicals is it encapsulates so many other fields. I was thinking of Sparta at the time, among others, because Sparta reads just like a fantasy.

Gary Corby said...

Lexi, you're dead right. Our word laconic comes directly from Lacedaimon, the name the Spartans called themselves. The Spartans were famous for being men of few words.

But here's a paradox for you! Spartans were sometimes referred to amongst other Greeks as "crickets", because they were always ready for a sing-song and communal dancing.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta, in this case, I'm not sure many people would stand for the regimentation that went with the communal spirit!

Interesting you mention Japan...I've seen discussions which wondered what would happen if Spartans faced an equal number of Samurai. A slight majority seem to think the Spartans would come out on top. Of course, we'll never know.

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T. and Kosmos, you're both very welcome! I enjoy writing these.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Stephanie, you've just put in mind of another blog post. Stay tuned for the next...

Gary Corby said...

Sarah, you are welcome to caveat away any time you feel like it! I always learn something.

I know, by the way, that eventually I'll blunder big time in one of these posts. When I finally do it, I hope you'll let me know at once. Please don't be shy!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Woohoo! Now I'm intrigued to see what you'll come up with!

Lexi said...

A sing-song and communal dancing? Hmmm...

That reminds me of school, where just one of the things they told me off for was lack of team spirit.

Gary Corby said...

I always laugh about the team player corporate pose.

I recall more than one Microsoft management meeting in which everyone paid lip service to the importance of bonding and team spirit, this in a room where at least half those present were determined to claw their way up over the bodies of the other half.

Not that I'm a cynic or anything.

Amalia T. said...

That cricket factoid should definitely be moved up to the body of this post :)

Gary Corby said...

Done, Amalia. I moved up the one about laconic as well.

Amalia T. said...

Awesome! This was another great post with great comments. I love how much discussion you get on your blog about history.

Gary Corby said...

It's the comments that make these posts work. Seriously! It's me who has to thank all you kind people for making it so much fun.

Yes, I love it too that somehow, a bunch of people who enjoy history have actually come together.

writtenwyrdd said...

This is the most fascinating post I've read here. I had to study a bit about Sparta in college humanities, but they never got into the good bits like this stuff. It was all "come back with your shield or on it," blah blah blah. This does read like a fantasy done over the top.

Gary Corby said...

Glad you like it, writtenwyrd. Yes, Sparta was seriously fantasy material.

writtenwyrdd said...

If you ever get bored and have nothing better to do, I'd love to see a list of your favorite reference books.

Gary Corby said...

That's a brilliant idea, writtenwyrd. I've put it on the to-blog list. Thanks!

writtenwyrdd said...

As an addict for collecting "books that I will use someday" (otherwise known as books that sit on the shelf, making me feel smart and informed) I would likely buy some of them. You should see my world mythology collection...very few of which I've yet to read. But I will, some day!

Gary Corby said...

It'll take me a little while before I get to that post, writtenwyrdd, so to keep you occupied here's an old post which is only partially relevant, but has the major sources. I'd be willing to bet you already have most of the books. Here are some of my major research sources.

writtenwyrdd said...

Hey, thanks, Gary!

Narukami said...

Another interesting post (as always).

A couple of thoughts spring to mind.

I am not aware of any sources mentioning that two Ephors accompanied Leonidas to the Hot Gates. Was that because his expedition to Thermopylae was "unofficial" or have I just missed this in my readings and in fact they were at the battle?

Comparing Sparta to Japan is an interesting exercise and one that can be quite informative though it also runs the risk of devolving into a Superman Vs. Mighty Mouse or Pee Wee Herman Vs. Herman Goring level of silliness.

Of a similar vain you might find this discussion of Roman Vs. Samurai from the Roman Army Talk Forum to be of passing amusement. The discussion does run off the rails from time to time, however, there is also good information to be gleaned from several of the postings.

http://www.romanarmytalk.com/rat/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=9832

Once again, thanks for your most interesting Blog post.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Narukami!

I don't think two ephors are named in the sources, but I can't credit that two didn't accompany Leonidas.

Leonidas after all was going within talking distance of the Persian King. That's exactly the sort of circumstance ephors were supposed to keep an eye on.

It's not necessarily meaningful that ephors aren't mentioned. It's like in modern times, where the news might report the CEO of a large company making a decision, without bothering to add that the chief financial officer must have approved the decision.

Gary Corby said...

Roman (or Spartan) vs Samurai: that's an interesting link!

What-if games are endless fun, but there's a certain amount of unreality to any speculation because, obviously, they never met. A great deal in a real meeting would depend on the circumstances, and who was commanding.

A barely more realistic scenario would be if Alexander had taken his Macedonians through China to reach Japan. (They'd never have gone that far, but still...) In that case, I'd back the Macedonians, but that's because Alexander plus any functional army is a winning combination.