Ancient Sparta is a legitimate source of fascination: it was a society almost exclusively dedicated to producing the best warriors the world had ever seen. But it also had its dark side.
Spartan society has always generated fascination in Western civilization throughout its history. Why wouldn’t it? It’s the epitome of physical and military might, discipline, and dedication. It featured one of the most complex law systems in ancient times, which turned Sparta into a world power for centuries. The Spartan state was known to be the most efficient killing machine around, as their soldiers dedicated their whole lives to train in the art of war. It was said that a single Spartan was worth a great many men from any other state. Never mind the slavery and the killing of children—Sparta rocked! Right?
It’s true they were committed warriors, and Spartan women enjoyed more freedom than any other women at the time. So, yeah, some of their traits were admirable, but others weren’t. While it’s easy to idealize an ancient society, we must always try to look at them in a less biased light as well. With that in mind, here are 13 facts that made the Spartans the most ruthless warriors in the ancient world.
Sparta didn’t build walls
“Our walls are our shields,” Spartans used to say. It was a standard Spartan policy that the defenses for their city-state were warriors rather than rocks or bricks.
When a Spartan man turned 7, he was sent to the agoge: a mandatory, rigorous, and intense military training program that lasted 14 years. During this period, children were put through extreme tests of physical and psychological prowess, where bullying was encouraged to toughen them up.
Stealing makes perfect
Men were also supposed to learn how to steal, but would get severely punished if anyone saw them doing it—not because of the stealing, but because of getting caught.
A nurtured brain
However, it wasn't all about the fighting. Above and beyond the brawn, there was also the brain. Spartan men were taught to read and write, and underwent exhaustive courses in arts and literature as part of their training in the agoge.
Pioneers in gender equality…
Many people in the ancient world were amazed at the amount of freedom Spartan women held. There was no true gender equality (not in the sense we understand it—that certainly wasn’t even a thing back then), but among all the states of antiquity, Sparta got the closest to our modern standards. Unlike elsewhere, women in Sparta were allowed to own and inherit property, and were usually better educated when compared to their male counterparts.
Women were expected to be physically strong too, and to be as well-fed as men (unlike in Athens) in order to be better prepared for childbearing. The physical regimen for girls was thus designed to make them “every bit as fit as their brothers,” something unheard of in the rest of the Greek world.
…But not so big on social equality
Sparta, much like every city-state back then, thrived by relying on slaves for labor. Known as helots, Spartan slaves were “obtained” through the conquest of fellow Greeks, they held virtually no rights, and were considered mere property to be disposed of as the state saw fit.
The Krypteia was a Spartan state institution composed of young men who showed promise as leaders. It acted as a kind of secret police whose main goal was to terrorize the helot population to prevent any uprisings. The Krypteia’s ultimate purpose was to train these young warriors for actual conflict by declaring war on the slaves, so that Spartans could kill them without repercussion. Talk about unfair.
They killed many of their own children
Spartans were expected to be the epitome of physical perfection—their reputation and efficiency depended on it. Therefore, any child that displayed any flaws or undesired features at birth was deemed a burden to society and left to die.
Not a word wasted
Spartans were famous for their concise manner of speech, often using austere and blunt statements. Such was their mastery of this art that all such expressions are known, even today, as Laconic phrases or laconism (after Laconia, the region of Greece where Sparta—or Lacedaemon—was located).
Examples of laconism include the famous retort by King Leonidas, when he was asked to surrender his weapons in the Battle of Thermopylae (yes, the one depicted in 300). His answer was molon labe!, or “come and take them!”
Another example comes from the time Philip II of Macedonia was invading Greece. Having conquered the rest of the city-states, he asked the Spartans wether he should arrive there as friend or foe. “Neither,” they replied. A single word! Angered, Philip tried to intimidate them: he warned, in many threatening words, that if he were to bring his army to their land, he would destroy their farms, people, and city. The Spartan reply? “If.”
They wore full body armor
Speaking of 300, there are several inaccuracies in that film. One of the most notable is the depiction of Spartans fighting topless—to show their abs, you see. But that certainly wasn’t how it they fought. Spartans used bronze cuirasses, which gave them a distinct advantage when facing the worse-armored Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae.
Spartans never surrendered
Except for that one time they did. It was a common belief at the time that no Spartan would ever lay his spear down in combat, especially since Spartan society punished cowardice harshly. Indeed, being called a coward was basically the worst insult for any man in Sparta, and it was an accusation which immediately turned him into an outcast. Imagine the shock when, in the Battle of Sphacteria, a whole army surrendered after it was beaten by the Athenians. The surrender is said to have utterly shocked the Greek world.
They engaged in homosexual behavior to strengthen their bonds
Spartan men spent most of their lives living with their fellow warriors, so it’s no surprise they engaged in homosexual behavior at some time or another. The Greeks simply didn’t frown upon this, and it wasn’t a big deal at all. In fact, having a male lover was thought to improve your combat skills: you wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself in his eyes, after all!
They were widely feared—and admired
Fighting a Spartan army in open battle was something no one wanted to do. It helps to have such an intimidating reputation that others would do whatever they could to avoid fighting you. And even when they did, you knew they’d be so scared they couldn’t possibly defeat you: facing a Spartan effectively deprived everyone of their morale.
But… there are no surviving Spartan records
Spartans were forbidden to keep written records, so there’s no way of getting to know their culture from an insider’s perspective. It’s important to note that most—if not all—of what we know about Sparta comes from indirect sources. It’s often believed that all who wrote about Sparta at the time idealized the warrior-state to the point of exaggerating many of their positive attributes while neglecting the bad ones, so we should take most of what we know about them with a grain of salt.
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