Sunday, 24 August 2008

Run for your life, the Spartans are coming!


The image of the long-haired, armed and cloaked Spartan warrior was meant to evoke a sense of terror and induce severe abdominal cramping in all enemies of Sparta, the harshest and most fearsome city state in the ancient Greek world.  Yet, despite this bloodcurdling reputation Herodotus tells us that when the Persian king Cyrus was visited by a delegation of rough-looking, long-haired, sun-baked men clad in red cloaks and with no desire for small-talk, and was duly warned to leave the Ionian cities alone or he would have to deal with them, the Spartans, the king allegedly turned to one of his advisors and asked "Who are the Spartans?"  Suffice to say no Greek would have asked this question.

Based in the fertile plain of Laconia, with the banks of the river Eurotas on the east, in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece, Sparta was well positioned for further development and expansion.  In the latter 8th century BC neighboring Messinia was annexed and its entire population enslaved (the Helots, i.e. slaves of Sparta).  This action transformed Sparta into a major Greek city state.  In the following centuries Sparta further consolidated its power in the Peloponnese while simultaneously developing what we would nowadays call an oppressive and heavily militaristic social system.  This served the state well.  Only a few thousand men were allowed to have citizenship.  These citizens (also the state's landowners), barred from engaging in the 'joys' of agricultural labour and any form of business activity, would serve full time as hoplites (heavy infantry) in the army.  While citizens dedicated their lives to the military helots, would toil away on the estates of citizens in order for food and other such necessities to be produced.  The government constisted of two kings, the ephors (5 civil magistrates elected annually by the citizens for a one-year term of office) who to a certain level were able to influence and/or control the activities of the two kings, and the gerousia a formidable council of elders.  Every Spartan male, (except for the two kings and their immediate heirs) from the age of 7 to 29 was subjected to a regime of public upbringing called agoge, which was basicaly military training combined with an extremely austere lifestyle, which entailed perpetual physical and psychological hardships of all kinds and demanded absolute obedience  (thus today we use the phrase 'a spartan lifestyle').  At age 12 the budding citizen could expect to be paired off with a young adult who would act as their patron and guide.  The relationship was also sexual on many occasions and this was seen as the done thing.  (The ancient world did not really classify people and especially men as being either heterosexual or homosexual, but adopted more of a bisexual view, ie. that sexual urges and needs were to be satisfied with both sexes).  During their years of training the young men would be routinely striped and paraded in front of young Spartan girls who would either praise them for their physical attributes of mock them as it was said a Spartan had nothing to hide (we do not know if penile size was on the agenda or not but we can assume physical fitness was a focal point).  Aged 29 the young man would graduate the agoge and if he was one of the most promising students was promptly sent off into the mountains with other such young men thus forming a group called the Crypteia.  The chosen graduates, dressed in a light tunic and armed only with a small dagger each, had one instruction to obey:  kill a hated helot in Messenia and prove themselves as killers.  These were the future leaders of Sparta and it was felt that no man was fit to lead unless able to kill on command.  

At the age of 30 the Spartan citizen was finally considered a man and able to control his own finances and stand for office.  Still, as a hoplite he was obliged to live in the army barracks and not with his family (he would visit wife during the pre-scheduled conjugal meetings whose primary purpose was the production of more Spartans).

Spartan women were also very tough and brought up to serve the state by keeping fit and healthy so as to give birth to the next generation of Spartan warriors and mothers.  They were in every sense of the word, baby factories.  However, the Spartan woman was also raised to be domineering, assertive and non-emotional while serving the state.  To the amusement of other Greeks who felt women ought to be modest, shut away in the back of the house, not seen and not heard, the Spartan women were infused with fanatic patriotic pride, taught to read and write and speak their mind with characteristic bluntness.  They also exercised in public, taking part in various sports, even wrestling.  They would do this dressed in a short tunic with a slit up the thighs or even naked.  All this was done so that as future mothers they could instruct their offspring on what it means to be a Spartan.  The famous phrase Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (I tan i epi tas = Either with your shield or on it) was the command Spartan mothers were said to give to their sons as they departed for battle.  Her son in other words was to either come back from battle as a hero with his shield or die and be carried back home on his shield (a hoplite could not escape the battlefield unless he let go of his heavy, cumbersome shield, thus losing one's shield meant desertion).  The Spartan bride had a shaven head and a no-nonsense attitude to go with it.  If she produced three sons for the state, as a bonus her husband would be excused from garrison duty.  Alternatively, if she died in childbirth she could look forward to being celebrated as having died for the state as her name would be specially carved on a tombstone for all to see and she would be remembered for eternity.  

King Cyrus must have been indeed surprised and even intrigued or shocked when he was given his briefing on who the Spartans were....

6 comments:

TBlackSwan said...

Hey! Love your site, truely fascinating history. This has nothing to do with Sparta (or ancient Greece for that matter), but I was just wondering if you've ever read "I, Claudius" or anything by the Emperor himself? The only thing I can liken it to is a historical soap opera if one was ever to be (gasp) well written.

Sorry this is so irrelevent, but I noticed you respond and post most of your comments as long as as they're complimentary and (cough) relevant. ;-)

joe90 said...

One of my favourite Spartan stories is about the invading Persian Emperor who asked for a typical Spartan meal to be prepared for him. He was taken aback somewhat with the rather 'spartan' fare put in front of him and it made him wonder about the benefits of going to all the effort of conquering such a poor people.

The cold reality of hard realism of the Spartan dietery regime gave the geopolitical strategy of Persian Imperial ambitions a bit of a battering.

The story is in Herodotus somewhere, but I can't quite find the exact reference for it at the moment.

all the best FH!

ps
Why Roman legions may be behind spread of Aids virus
The Herald (Glasgow)
06 Sept 2008

Anna said...

tblackswan, thank you for your comments. Yes, I have read "I Claudius" and seen the BBC tv show of the same name whcih was made in the 1970s I believe. Unfortunately "I Claudius" written by Robert Graves, although lots of fun to read and watch, is in fact a mixture of fact and fiction (which he freely admitted). The real Emperor Claudius did in fact write a history of Rome but the manuscript has been lost through the ages. Livia's scheming and penchant for poisoning people she wanted to get rid of is pure conjecture, principally based on rumours spread by the historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio, who both lived up to 2 and a half centuries after Livia. Much of the material in "I Claudius" is drawn from Suetonius's "Lives of the Twelve Caesars" which is also a great read, but it is good to keep in mind the fact that Suetonius was a scandalmonger (much like a tabloid newspaper is today) and not all his assertions can be considered facts but should be taken with a preverbial pinch of salt.

Anna said...

joe90, the Roman legions have been blamed for many things, both positive and negative, but this is certainly a novelty. It just goes to show that imperialist expansion can be bad for your health!

Molly said...

HEY! this totally helped me with my research paper, and i hope this is as accurate as i think it probably is. thanks for putting your time and effort into this great site!

Caroline said...

love your blog, just the perfect blog. follow me?? xx